Characters move in and out of a gray, inky oblivion in “Moonlight,” Harold Pinter’s first full-length play (or, at 80 minutes, near enough) since “Betrayal” in 1978; and oblivion, indeed, is the subject of the play. Offering glimpses of a dysfunctional family dominated by the dying father, Andy (Ian Holm), the play rages caustically — and sometimes lyrically — against mortality, even as it shows its long-silenced playwright coming back to creative life. (Pinter’s most recent plays — the politically loaded “Party Time, “”Mountain Language” and “One for the Road”– have been very short, and sharp.)
That’s not to say “Moonlight” is vintage Pinter, compared with “No Man’s Land ,” an earlier examination of death thrillingly revived by the Almeida last season.
But at its best, the play is lit with flashes of brilliance to compensate for its crudity and repetition. While its jokes about masturbation and the aural affinity between “lust” and “luster” show Pinter at his most facetiously macho, much of “Moonlight” is devoted to the same task as the bedridden son Fred (Michael Sheen), who yearns to “find whatever light is left in the dark.”
That illumination, of course, comes mostly from language, which Pinter suggests is our best defense against the annihilating blackness that hovers (literally so, in Rick Fisher’s superb lighting) over the stage, and over life.
While Fred and his older brother Jake (Douglas Hodge) indulge in cryptic banter and name-calling on one side of the stage, their father on the other snarls his way toward death, accompanied by his watchful wife, Bel (Anna Massey).
The family is completed by the intermittent specter of their (dead?) daughter Bridget (Claire Skinner), whose quietly spoken reveries bookend the play.
Eager for his sons’ bedside company, Andy endures his decline with no one but Bel and a visiting couple, Ralph and Maria (the latter of whom once had affairs with both partners).
“Death is your new horizon,” Bel advises her ailing husband, and “Moonlight” is at its best in its unflinching depiction of the terrors of mortality.
While Massey makes a moving figure of calm against Andy’s ongoing belligerence, Holm’s breathtaking performance reminds us that his absence from the theater — he last appeared on stage in a 1979 “Uncle Vanya” at Hampstead — has been no less significant than Pinter’s own. (Holm won a 1967 Tony for Pinter’s “Homecoming.”) The actor has a high time barking the rhetoric of an aging warrior, but his silences ultimately chill the blood — a panicky glance here, a silent scream there.
If the play’s specifics can be opaque — what is the matter with Fred, anyway? — director David Leveaux (“Anna Christie”) finds that lucid through-line to this writer that he also discovered in “No Man’s Land” and “Betrayal,” and Bob Crowley’s shimmeringly bleak set seems to inhabit the same misty realm as the past which the play describes.
In the end, “Moonlight” works by insinuation and nuance and not by plot; it’s a fitting late entry in the career of that rare writer who can pose a seemingly innocuous question like “Do you do dry cleaning?” only to find the audience observing the answer through its tears.