Jokes don't leap off the pages of Conor McPherson's doomsday play The Birds, so why was a portion of opening night's audience quietly laughing at American Stage's production?
The laughter couldn't have been releasing tension since the play was barely under way. Once that silence in the seats is broken, it gives tacit permission for little of what happens on stage to be taken seriously, when McPherson's play is deadly so. (A Times reader who attended the next day's matinee described a similar experience.)
Perhaps the amused brought expectations of Alfred Hitchcock's mordantly humorous take on Daphne du Maurier's story about homicidal birds. The playwright, like Hitch, ditched everything in du Maurier's grim story except the idea of avian invasion, which Hitchcock turned into grisly fun. McPherson keeps the birds outside while trapped people figuratively peck each other toward death. Not cheery stuff at all.
Director Todd Olson obviously takes this stressed, identifiably Irish material seriously. Not one of his core trio of actors can be accused of over-milking the laughs McPherson does offer, mainly in the context of a drunk scene. The fourth cast member is an exception, and possibly a signpost for the direction future performances of The Birds could take. More on him later.
As with all versions of The Birds, there's no explanation of why birds are suddenly attacking humans, driving two survivors into an abandoned farm house, boarded-up and spookily adorned by scenic designer Jeffrey W. Dean. The front door splattered with bloody feather pulp is a nice gruesome touch. Olson's sound design regularly fills the small theater with angry squawks and flutters, while backstage hands thump the scenery, mimicking the sound of kamikaze crows.
The male who certainly isn't alpha is Nat (Richard B. Watson), nursed back from delirium by Diane (Roxanne Fay), an author of note. They have established a platonic partnership, scavenging for food when bird attacks subside, and generally putting up with each other. Diane keeps a journal of her thoughts, which are dark and getting darker, presented by Fay in voiceover, her face made stern by a splash of spotlight overhead.
The routine is shattered by the arrival of Julia (Gretchen Porro), an example of the too-abrupt shifts in McPherson's plot. The Birds is presented as 15 scenes with varying time passed in between, so for this younger threat to Diane's standing to suddenly appear in scene 5, ingratiated in the household, is a narrative speed bump and not the only one.
Such a stop-and-go structure hinders cultivating tension. Olson doesn't help by inserting an intermission McPherson never intended, at the exact moment when a genuine terror element is introduced. He's Tierney, a nearby farmer played by Joseph Parra with a druggy gleam and grunts punctuating each suspicion. In a single scene Parra roars menace that intentionally amuses, and audience gratitude could be sensed.
So, my suggestion would be for American Stage to embrace the fun McPherson didn't write that obviously lurks beneath the grim. Enable laughter and terror to go trembling hand-in-hand. These are exemplary actors Olson has at his disposal for the next three weeks, and perhaps only a few lifted eyebrows or inflections can flesh out what audiences already sniff about The Birds.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.