Keith Allen, Lindsay Duncan, Andy de la Tour, and Susan Wooldridge in Celebration(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Keith Allen, Lindsay Duncan, Andy de la Tour,
and Susan Wooldridge in Celebration
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Although the list of Harold Pinter's plays and scenarios is long and rightly prompts the adjective "prolific," there have been times during the past four-plus decades when, word got around, he was drawing blanks. There was a four-year break between One for the Road (1984), which takes little more than a half hour to make its point about the facile cruelty of totalitarians, and Mountain Language (1988), which takes about 20 minutes to make some of the same points. Perhaps Pinter had gotten so wrought up in the '80s about man's inhumanity to man, on both private and governmental levels, that he found himself tongue-tied.

More recently, there was a three-year lapse between the 45-minute domestic contretemps Ashes to Ashes (1996) and Celebration (1999), recently seen in Manhattan for the first time in the Lincoln Center Festival 2001 Pinter retrospective. But unlike the awaited Mountain Language, which ultimately had the effect of a pea shot from a cannon, Celebration is cause for, yup, celebration. It's an instantly classic comedy sketch about the ubiquity of bad manners in the face of which good manners don't stand a chance. And whereas in his past works Pinter seems to have drawn his influences from absurdists like Samuel Beckett, here time he seems to be harking back to absurdists like S. J. Perelman.

In this knee-slapping playlet, two crassly tarted-up sisters married to two big-talking brothers have gathered for one of the couple's anniversary at a quietly posh London eatery. Seated nearby, another man and wife out for a slap-up meal are flattering themselves with inanities. Every once in a while, these schnooks are interrupted by a suave maitre d', a silky hostess and/or a waiter who insists on establishing his grandfather's credentials as a friend to internationally known greats.

What Pinter means to say is quite clear: These days, small talk has become so genuinely small that it's practically vanished. Though these husbands and wives bring to mind the husbands and wives in previous Pinter pieces, he's not so much rattled here by the undercurrents of uncertainty or, worse, hatred. Or perhaps he's found another way to declare that, in their inability to say anything of any import whatsoever to one another, these spouses represent civilization's last gasp as much as do, for instance, the tense figures in The Homecoming.

On third thought, maybe Pinter just wants to poke some relatively innocent fun. His script is shot through with delightful truisms and non-sequiturs. Right after the hostess in her chignon noted that "You don't have to be English to enjoy good food," the lady behind me whispered to her companion, "That's the line of the night." And I only repeat it now because she was wrong; that line is a scream, but there are at least a couple dozen equally effective ones.

Just after the play's three couples--who eventually combine their socializing--have downed their last flute of champagne and toddled off into the night, the waiter steps to the center of the stage and gives a little speech. Though Pinter might possibly contend that everything he (the playwright) means to say is encapsulated in the waiter's enigmatic monologue, this address to the audience seems pretentious and extraneous. Then again, Pinter claims to put down whatever comes into his head without questioning its meaning.

Celebration was directed perfectly by the playwright, and the cast was perfect. As the dumb blonde sisters, Lindsay Duncan and Susan Wooldridge preened and dropped foolish remarks like soiled hankies. Their hubbies were played by Keith Allen, who made cockiness a laff riot, and Andy de la Tour, who got lots of yuks with his long, rubbery face. Lia Williams and Steven Pacey were the embodiment of fatuity as the other couple. All of these thesps were dressed with tasteful tastelessness by Dany Everett and lit with precision by Mick Hughes.

Celebration was unveiled as the last production of a two-week Pinter festival in which a marvelous company of actors and production people repeatedly distinguished themselves; I, for one, wish that they had gone ahead and revived the rest of the master's oeuvre. Preceding Celebration on the night's bill was The Room, Pinter's first and highly provocative play. Again, he was the director. (Earlier in the festivities, he acted in One for the Road--and if that angry, unsubtle play didn't make much of an impression, Pinter himself did as an unctuous inquisitor.) In The Room, Rose and Bert Hudd live in the room being scrutinized. He's a silent type who drives a truck for his meager living, she is a non-stop talker and worrier. After she's fed and bundled him off on a late-night assignment and gotten the interloping landlord Mr. Kiss out of the way, she's visited by a couple who might be up to no good. She's also paid a call by a blind man with a mysterious message for her; he's assaulted by Mr. Hudd, who makes an unexpected, early return. Trying to locate the logic in all this is a fool's errand, although what transpires is never boring. Moreover, the prolix Mrs. Hudd is one of Pinter's most compelling characters.

Making Mrs. Hudd that much more memorable was Lindsay Duncan--who, now that Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins have been damed, may have moved to the top of the candidates' list. Whether slicing and then buttering her husband's bread or holding her sweater tightly around her and gazing blankly at a present filled with nothing, she commanded undivided attention. Here again, she was joined by Lia Williams, Keith Allen, and Steven Pacey, all of them advertisements for versatility. Also on hand was Henry Woolf, fresh from making something substantial of the so-so Monologue (which was written for television, and which depicts a man addressing an empty chair as if it contained an ex-friend who'd transgressed one too many times.)

Here's a tip: Buy stock in Harold Pinter. It's heading toward new highs.