Draped in apocalypse, September 11 was an apt day to see a preview performance of The Birds, which opens tonight at 59E59 Theaters. Daphne du Maurier’s short story, legendarily but loosely adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963, proved a foundation for tales of random terror besieging mankind, and its claw marks are everywhere in modern horror, most notably in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its never-ending offshoots. There’s traces of it in the Tony-winning play The Humans, where ominous noises periodically unsettle an apartment. How would the material “fly” on stage?
This Birds isn’t Hitchcock. Nor is it du Maurier’s, other than the basic premise and the name of its male character. Dublin-born playwright Conor McPherson is a dab hand at things that go bump in the night, often conveyed in monologues, as in St. Nicholas and The Weir. With Shining City, produced on Broadway in 2006 (and Off Broadway earlier this year), McPherson got his characters to open up to one another, in a way–it’s the ghostly story of a therapist and his patient, with an unnerving jolt at the end. My favorite play of his, The Seafarer, a Tony-nominated success in 2007, is full of deviltry, blarney, and high spirits.
First produced at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 2009, The Birds is a return to minimalism. The black box theatre has bits of set–a kitchen area, a sofa, chalkmarks on the floor demarcating “home”–strewn about the seats, and images projected on one wall. As we settle into this disrupted environment, intentionally hard-to-decipher news headlines blare across the sound system, regarding bird attacks. Low squawks accompany an underscore. Once Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia), a novelist who has sought refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, takes the microphone set up onstage, most of the sound effects fall away. There’s not a bird to be seen.
But they are felt. The birds, we learn, come in and out with the tide, giving Diane a few hours each day to forage. We do hear them rustling in the rafters, attempting to get past the barricades. The main problems, however, are with the two-legged occupants. Diane has rescued Nat (Tony Naumovski), who, once recovered from his injuries, proves a bit unstable. They nonetheless form a bond of convenience, which is frayed with the arrival of the younger, more impulsive Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw). While Diane laments her lost relationship with her own daughter, Julia’s recklessness sidelines maternal goodwill. A fourth character, a local farmer, Tierney, appears. Clad in makeshift bird-repellent gear, he stays just long enough to suggest that Julia is dangerous. Diane holds out some hope that the three of them can pull together. “Be a Christian,” Tierney (also played by Naumovski) counsels. “Watch where that gets you.” Not too far, as a serious betrayal subsequently rocks the farmhouse. Survival instinct sweeps through as surely as avian flu.
Avoiding gut-punch shocks for its 90 intermissionless minutes, McPherson’s take is more insinuating, right to its closing image, suggesting that the animal within is as wild and unpredictable as the animal without. Stefan Dzeparoski directs with restraint, letting the void created by the sets (Konstantin Roth), video (David J. Palmer), lighting (Kia Rogers), and sound (Ien Denio) whisper to us in the dark. With everything stripped away, the characters have little left save for the power to communicate, for good or ill, and the performers capably bring a new form of The Birds to life.