Adapted by Conor McPherson from the story Daphne du Maurier
Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski
Writing in 1952, author Daphne Du Maurier imagined a bleak future in which mankind’s survival is threatened by a sinister change in the avian population. In his iconic film adaptation (which didn’t please Du Maurier), Alfred Hitchcock kept little of the plot, but retained the core concept of winged menace. Now Conor McPherson, known for chilling Irish Gothic yarns like THE WEIR, offers a modern spin on ornithopocalypse. As in the previous versions, McPherson keeps things enigmatic. No pat explanations are offered, and audiences are left to guess at what evil forces are at work, what sin awakened the monster. For the 21st Century audiences, THE BIRDS reads as a parable of climate change, Mother Nature’s payback for humanity’s destructive hubris (“Who’s the endangered species, now? Huh? “). Given this contemporary context, McPherson’s new spin ought to feel grippingly relevant. Yet despite a strong cast, there are gaps in the construction of the play that ultimately impede its momentum and muddle its meaning.
Seeking refuge in an abandoned rural New England house, writer Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia) tries to make the most of what little provisions she can find. Like the rest of the human race (what’s left of it), she is seeking shelter from the birds, who have united as a species and are tearing people to shreds. There are human threats as well: people are forming into gangs, looting and killing in order to survive in this ravaged landscape. Diane joins forces fellow fugitive Nat (Tony Naumovski), who is strong and handy but emotionally unstable. The two have just begun to bond when young Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) turns up at their door. A free spirit who reads palms and quotes Ecclesiastes, Julia enlivens the group dynamic and manages to find some wine and food in a nearby house. The trio begins to coalesce into a family. But Diane questions whether the younger woman, who once ran with a bad group of people, is telling the truth about where she got the goodies. Diane’s suspicions are confirmed when she receives a visit from the Farmer, the only other living human being in the area. Clad in homemade armor, and speaking like a populist politician, the Farmer claims to be the only one who can lead the way to a better life. Diane doesn’t take him up on the offer. She’s more concerned with the fact that his canned onions resemble the ones Julia has been bringing home. Clearly the girl has been trading sex for comestibles, and lying to Matt and Diane about it. Trust is further eroded when Julia uses her nubile charms to lure Matt away from Diane. An incestuous tug of war ensues, and Diane reshapes her morality to suit her changing environment.
The charisma and credibility of the cast is almost enough to carry this odd drama. Stefan Dzaparoski uses the theater’s round space adroitly and keeps the tension taught. Yet even their best efforts can’t fill in the missing pieces. Matt comes across as something of a disparaging caricature, a panting male easily led by the clever women in his life. Diane is more multidimensional, but her arc (much of it telegraphed through the journal entries she read aloud to the audience), isn’t fully convincing either. Apparently a two hour and 20 minute version of McPherson’s script premiered at the Dublin Theater Festival in 2009. Perhaps taking more time to get to know the characters might have helped the audience follow their transformations. In this leaner, 90 minute edition, something crucial seems to have been sacrificed. Trimming the fat from a script is part of every playwright’s process, but it must be done skillfully lest the good bits disappear as well. Ultimately THE BIRDS leaves us undernourished.
THE BIRDS continues through October 2, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.ticketcentral.com