By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — There are times, as a critic, when you're tempted to second-guess yourself. Watching the latest effort by Harold Pinter, one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 20th century, I was in such a pickle.
The play, Celebration, was presented last week at the LaGuardia Drama Theatre as half of a double bill featured in Lincoln Center Festival 2001's tribute to the writer. The production (* * out of four) — which Pinter himself directed for London's esteemed Almeida Theatre Company — began with his earliest play, 1957's The Room, a bleak gem marked by assets that have become Pinter hallmarks, such as resonant pauses and dialogue that is elegantly, realistically idiosyncratic.
Set in a flat designed to dingy perfection by Eileen Diss, Room focuses on a lonely woman who alternately seems to be running toward and away from something menacing. Led with fiery precision by Pinter, Lindsay Duncan was haunting in this role; Henry Woolf and George Harris were equally potent as, respectively, an eccentric landlord and a mysterious stranger.
Then came Celebration, and my moment of self-doubt. The comedy is set in a restaurant, where two parties — a pair of tacky middle-aged couples and an ambitious but vapid young husband and wife — interact with the staff and each other. Pinter described the play in a recent interview as "probably the funniest" he has written.
So it was with consternation that I found myself staring stone-faced at the stage, watching 11 excellent actors grapple with some of the lamest and, frankly, most mean-spirited attempts at bawdy humor and wry social commentary that I've heard recently.
Wondering if I just wasn't getting it, I surveyed the audience, much as I might have looked at my flight attendants if I suspected the plane were going down. Some seemed genuinely amused; others were laughing a bit ostentatiously, I thought, as if to let the rest of us know that they did get it. (This is a common occurrence at "highbrow" productions, I'm afraid.)
I'll admit that Pinter isn't a personal favorite, but I have generally admired his artful use of language, rhythm and space. But in Celebration, the pace can feel forced and frantic; and the dialogue — which presumably attempts to represent the shallowness of social interaction by having characters squabble aimlessly and spew glib, meaningless drivel — ranges from silly to misanthropic.
Steven Pacey and Lia Williams did their best as the pretentious, oafish young banker and his pretentious, whorish young wife, as did Duncan, Keith Allen, Andy de la Tour and Susan Wooldridge as two sleazy "consultants" and their irritating spouses.
But Danny Dyer, as a waiter, delivered the most telling lines at the end, after the rest of the despicable, babbling lot had walked off stage. "I'm still in the middle of ... the mystery of life," he mused. "I can't find the door to get out." In Celebration, Pinter's wit seems to dissolve in a vat of condemnation — not of life, specifically, but of people and their possibilities, without which life is nothing. If I could give an infinitely more accomplished writer a little unsolicited advice, I would remind him that there is a difference between an astute observer of life's foibles and a cranky old cynic.