William Wharton's psychosocial novel "Birdy," published in 1979, gives Naomi Wallace a checklist of titillating elements in theatrical vogue in recent years: nudity, homosexuality, racism and crude language. She used them all in adapting "Birdy" for the theater. But while it is entertainingly staged, this psychologically heavy play raises hopes for something profound that are not really fulfilled.

William Wharton’s psychosocial novel “Birdy,” published in 1979, gives Naomi Wallace a checklist of titillating elements in theatrical vogue in recent years: nudity, homosexuality, racism and crude language. She used them all in adapting “Birdy” for the theater. But while it is entertainingly staged, this psychologically heavy play raises hopes for something profound that are not really fulfilled.

Two men are depicted at different stages of their lives, trying to separate reality from fantasy and sanity from craziness. Younger Birdy (Michael Pitt, Henry on TV’s “Dawson’s Creek”) is neurotically obsessed with petting, understanding and becoming a bird. A fall from a storage tank in the opening scene while trying to catch pigeons gives him the sense of flying. The fall is engagingly reduced to slow motion through use of slightly visible wires, lights and sound. The sensation fuels his obsession, compelling him to try to fly with a bird mechanism.

His hypersensitivity to birds is balanced by the machismo of his close friend , Al (Bryant Richards), who demonstrates techniques for Birdy to use in scoring with his prom date. Birdy juxtaposes sexual aspects of his relationship with the date and his bird, Perta. The bird proves more attractive.

A circular, rotating set helps us jump from the past to a mental hospital where Birdy (Wallace Acton), witness to a World War II horror, is now mute, but amusingly bird-like in his movements. Al (Grant Show, of TV’s “Melrose Place”), who sustained a face injury in the war, is summoned to help lure Birdy out of his animated trance. He succeeds, while tangling with Dr. Weiss (Robert Hogan), Birdy’s doctor, over their own psychoses. Birdy leaves it uncertain whether he was pretending or was actually crazy. In either case, he was escaping from reality.

A cured Birdy and Al, fearing Dr. Weiss will keep Birdy locked up because his case is one of a kind, fantasize about their escape from the mental institution. Their indecision about which plan to pursue ends novel and play, but produces the most succinct synopsis: “There’s no end to the absurd things people will do to make life mean something.”

The rapid scene changes, shifts in time and other effects are engaging and benefit from being the product of one person, Kevin Knight, director and set designer, who directed the play’s premiere in London in 1995. Brian Nason’s lighting enhances a mood of mental mystery, and the costumes of Jane Greenwood are appropriate. The cast is likely to grow stronger while maturing in the roles during the preview at Duke U. through March 19 before an eventual move to Broadway.

Birdy

(REYNOLDS THEATER/DUKE UNIVERSITY; 609 SEATS; $ 30 TOP)

Production

DURHAM, N.C. A Theater Previews at Duke and Spring Sirkin presentation of a play in two acts adapted by Naomi Wallace from the novel by William Wharton. Directed by Kevin Knight.

Crew

Sets, Knight; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian Nason; music, Richard Tomes; sound, Eileen Tague; dramaturg, John Clum; production stage manager, Brian Meister; production manager, Douglas A. Martelon. Opened March 9, 2000. Reviewed March 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

With

Al Columbato ..... Bryant Richards Birdy ..... Michael Pitt Sgt. Al Columbato ..... Grant Show Dr. Weiss ..... Robert Hogan Renaldi ..... Teagle F. Bougere Birdy ..... Wallace Acton

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