Irish playwright Conor McPherson knows how to spin a spooky tale, as those who have seen South Florida productions of his stage stories can attest. New Theatre gave us McPherson’s The Weir in 2002, GableStage his play Shining City in the summer of 2008, and Mosaic Theatre a Carbonell Award-winning production of The Seafarer at the end of that year.
Now Mosaic has gone back to McPherson with The Birds, a stage version of the 1952 Daphne du Maurier short story that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s horrifying 1963 big-screen adaptation. But while Hitchcock’s film was scary enough to induce panic attacks in bird-phobic moviegoers, McPherson’s The Birds is pitched at the cooler temperature of a psychological thriller, though more heat would make for a better play.
Staged by John Manzelli, the play turns to the time-tested formula of throwing strangers together in a tense situation and having them unravel. Du Maurier’s story was set in Cornwall shortly after the end of World War II, Hitchcock’s movie in ‘60s Bodega Bay on the Pacific Ocean west of San Francisco. McPherson’s present-day The Birds takes place in an abandoned home somewhere in the northeast. Maybe the message is that we should always be afraid, very afraid, of marauding flocks of seagulls and crows with murder on their bird brains.
First to arrive at the rustic house (designer Douglas Grinn’s beautifully detailed space sports a stone fireplace and shutters to keep out the feathered invaders) are Diane (a sly Kim Cozort) and Nat (the often-agitated Kenneth Kay).
She is a successful author and the play’s narrator. He’s a guy with an explosive temper and maybe a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder. When the birds began attacking, each was on a journey to try to make things right with an estranged loved one. Over time, they become friendly, working out a system of going out to forage for food and supplies during bird-free, six-hour periods when the tide is out.
Then another stranger shows up, upsetting the balance of power as she introduces the element of sexual tension. Julia (the intriguing, alluring Vera Varlamov) is a jittery girl young enough to be Nat and Diane’s daughter. Assaulted as she was hiding out with groups of increasingly desperate townfolk, she is relieved to be in what feels like a haven, though there’s no electricity and little to eat. And at first, she is polite and almost subservient – though that doesn’t last long.
With the revelation of secrets, mysteriously obtained supplies and the scary arrival of an armed old man (a creepy Kevin Reilley) man who has an indecent proposal for Diane, McPherson aims to ratchet up the tension over 85 minutes of cinematically short scenes. Yet despite the strong performances of all four actors and the masterful work of sound designer Matt Corey (the bouts of flapping wings are his doing) and lighting designer Suzanne M. Jones, McPherson supplies not much more than a sketchy version of an apocalyptic world. The most terrifying, dramatic incidents all take place somewhere else, and we just get to hear about them. Waiting for the play to take flight is, finally, much like the strangers’ quest for a resolution to their nightmare – an exercise in futility.