Harold Pinter's works are always abstruse, but Moonlight, Pinter's 1993 play now at the Studio Theatre in Washington, takes impenetrability to a whole new level. Director Joy Zinoman has assembled a strong cast of actors who obviously believe in what they're doing, but their point remains elusive to the audience.
Pinter, of course, was famous for his ruminations on life, death and mortality, with an underlying sense of unease and strategic pauses. Moonlight hits the playwright's familiar marks, but it's mostly so low-key that it lacks sustained dramatic tension.
On a grim two-level set designed by Debra Booth, with a chain-link fence in front of a peeling plaster wall, a disagreeable old man named Andy (Ted van Griethuysen) snarls, gloats and torments his long-suffering wife Bel (Sybil Lines) as he waits for death. Andy is desperate to hear from his estranged sons, Jake (Anatol Yusef) and Fred (Tom Story), but, for their part, they refuse to answer the phone when their mother calls, spending all their time instead squabbling and engaging in elaborate role-playing games with each other. Hovering above the scene is Bridget (Libby Woodbridge), daughter and sister, who is obviously dead but the family members pointedly avoid mentioning her.
Andy and Bel, and their lively friends Maria (Catherine Flye) and Ralph (James Slaughter), escape from their current discomfort by dwelling on, and constantly redefining, the past. Whatever caused the rift between the parents and their sons is lost in the mist of memory, or else purposely avoided. And what happened to gentle, welcoming Bridget, who gazes down on all of them like a benign but powerless angel? The whole evanescent experience runs about 70 minutes, with no intermission to destroy the mood.
Van Griethuysen is always a vital presence onstage; here he manages to be bluntly physical even though he spends most of the performance confined to bed. Lines ably portrays a woman beaten down by life, yet able to rally when circumstances demand. Yusef and Story are more enigmatic, trapped as they are in their personal drama, and Woodbridge has a fascinating stillness. Flye and Slaughter, intruders in this hermetic family, are more overtly funny as emissaries from a more conventional outside world.