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(ALMEIDA THEATER; 303 SEATS; 21.50[pounds sterling] ($34) TOP)

LONDON An Almeida Theater Co. presentation of a two one-act plays written and directed by Harold Pinter. Sets, Eileen Diss; costumes, Dany Everett; lighting, Mick Hughes; sound, John A. Leonard. Opened March 22, 2000. Reviewed March 25. Running time: 2 HOURS.
                 THE ROOM

Rose                            Lindsay Duncan
Bert Hudd                         Steven Pacey
Mr. Kidd                           Henry Woolf
Mrs. Sands                        Lia Williams
Mr. Sands                          Keith Allen
Riley                            George Harris


Lambert                            Keith Allen
Julie                         Susan Wooldridge
Matt                           Andy de la Tour
Prue                            Lindsay Duncan
Russell                           Steven Pacey
Suki                              Lia Williams
Waiter                              Danny Dyer

With: Indira Varma, Thomas Wheatley, Nina Raine, Katherine Tozer.

This place is like a womb to me,'" says the interjection-prone waiter (Danny Dyer) midway through "Celebration," and it isn't just the aural affinity between the words "womb" and "room" that links Harold Pinter's latest play to his very first one, "The Room," premiered at Bristol U. in May 1957. True, that maiden voyage into now-seminal dramatic terrain brings together a drably turned-out assemblage invading a down-at-heel bedsit, while the second one unites some of London's more brutish nouveau riche at a restaurant that could well be the Ivy (and not only because actor Thomas Wheatley uncannily resembles Ivy patron Jeremy King).

Both plays occupy Pinter's singular no man's land between civility and chaos, so it may seem somewhat paradoxical to report that they make for an altogether exhilarating, even joyous Almeida Theater double-bill. Those may seem strange adjectives to apply to writing perched not far from the inky blackness that hovers suggestively around Eileen Diss' expertly contrasting sets (the peerless lighting designer is Mick Hughes). But there's something uniquely bracing about an elder statesman of the theater -- Pinter will be 70 in October-- seemingly rediscovering his voice with "Celebration" even as "The Room" shows a fledgling dramatist at age 26 emerging more or less fully formed. Together, they're a springtime tonic from a dramatist who-- thrillingly-- hasn't lost his capacity to tease.

It helps, of course, that Pinter has functioned as his own, exacting director, working with a cast-- half of whom can be seen in both plays -- who inhabit so fully his demarcated landscape. In "The Room," Lindsay Duncan's Rose finds an absurdist comedy merely in buttering her husband's bread, just as her mood shifts imperceptibly to apprehension and worse with the arrival of various visitors whose reasons for appearing become more and more strange.

It's with both shock and delight, then, that one welcomes a transformed Duncan back to the stage after the intermission to play the black-clad balletomane sister to Susan Wooldridge in "Celebration." In the first play, she's as dowdy as she is dazzling in the second, as if her able doubling onscreen recently in "Mansfield Park" (not to mention appearing in Pinter's own "Ashes to Ashes" and "The Homecoming") was merely preparatory to this theatrical coup.

In "The Room," we're aware from the start that all is not right: Only Pinter could make a reference to "lovely weak tea" sound like an incipient sign of defeat. "Celebration," in turn, starts with jokes about osso buco, with the result that Pinter looks to be surrendering the mesmeric opacity of, say, "Ashes to Ashes" in favor of a Spy magazine-style sketch. And yet, have no fear --"Celebration" is full of thinly submerged dread and fear. Those qualities emerge in passing discussions of bloodied sheets and in an omnipresent sexism and xenophobia. After all, concludes Russell (Steven Pacey) from the celebrants' adjacent table that he is sharing with onetime secretary Suki (Lia Williams), the ideal restaurant is one where "all the waitresses have big tits." Who needs chic when you can have cleavage?

The earlier play excavates a minefield of menace more hinted at than actually seen, and it's easy with hindsight to think of "The Room" as an antecedent in virtually every way to "The Birthday Party," premiered the following year. But an ill-advised West End directing foray into Jane Stanton Hitchcock's puerile "Vanilla" apart, Pinter has generally forsworn the satiric cut-and-thrust that marks "Celebration." The surprise, then, lies less in his ability to toss out zingers than it does in his return in the play's coda to that realm of the oblique that no living playwright communicates -- a terrific paradox here -- so lucidly.

The new play's closing words belong to that very waiter -- played without a trace of self-consciousness by the remarkable young Dyer -- whose intrusions into the meal constitute the play's single best running gag. Trust Pinter, then, to find in that same garrulous figure the embodiment of the unknowable, the unsaid, of "the mystery of life," that has marked out his creator's entire career. Lost somewhere between reverie and recollection, the waiter thinks back on a childhood event when -- he says with heart-stopping casualness -- "the sea glistened." It's a measure of "Celebration" that the play does, too.
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Apr 3, 2000
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