As the blackout curtain rolls up to reveal the first scene of the Theater for a New Audience production of "Saved," you may have a vision of a sardine can being opened. The image isn't inappropriate. Although Edward Bond's acclaimed 1965 play isn't exactly overpopulated, it emits a powerful feeling of claustrophobia and airlessness. There is also a distinct air of refrigeration emanating from Robert Woodruff's production, which possesses a glacial authority that's impressive on its own terms.

As the blackout curtain rolls up to reveal the first scene of the Theater for a New Audience production of “Saved,” you may have a vision of a sardine can being opened. The image isn’t inappropriate. Although Edward Bond’s acclaimed 1965 play isn’t exactly overpopulated, it emits a powerful feeling of claustrophobia and airlessness. There is also a distinct air of refrigeration emanating from Robert Woodruff’s production, which possesses a glacial authority that’s impressive on its own terms.

That this authority derives as much from the director as the playwright is an indication that Woodruff’s ice-cold vision may not do total justice to Bond’s play. But the play, not seen in a major production here in three decades, has a shattering truth at its core that nothing can obscure. The unsettling spell it casts is hard to shake, and the clarity and visual precision of Woodruff’s production serves it after a fashion: It etches the sharp lessons of Bond’s play into our consciousness, almost in spite of the emotional detachment inspired by the chilly presentation of the text.

The characters revealed when that curtain rises — under glaring lighting by David Weiner and on a stark, antiseptic set by Douglas Stein that perfectly serve Woodruff’s analytical take on the play — are indeed scarcely more animated than frozen fish. The vigorous sexual encounter of the first scene is like a last desperate burst of activity before frostbite sets in.

It takes a while to figure out just who the frenzied participants are, because Bond’s play is written with a Pinterian sense of economy, its characters denuded of all but the most rudimentary traits. Their clipped, desultory conversation defines their limited emotional scope. Each has receded into the shell of the self, emerging only to snatch at the substitute comforts — a cup of tea, a cigarette, a favorite weekly magazine — that provide some solace as deeper hungers go unsatisfied.

The coupling twosome are Pam (Amy Ryan), who lives with her quietly combative mum and dad, and Len (Pete Starrett), who soon becomes the family lodger. Pam and Len idly contemplate a future life together in the play’s second scene, but by the third Pam has taken up with Len’s pal Fred. The wail of Pam’s unseen baby is heard throughout the fourth scene, and the bored indifference with which everyone in the room — Pam, her father Harry and mother Mary, even the more sensitive Len — snipe at each other as they ignore the baby’s cries is the chilling crux of the play, far more than the infamous scene that soon follows. “I ain’ gettin’ involved,” grouses Harry as the bickering reaches a peak, in a line that might be a summation of the family’s moral code.

The cry of a baby is, after all, the sound of human need reduced to its essence. The indifference that greets it in “Saved” is neglect at its most profound. The play’s clear-eyed observation of the interplay between need and neglect, and how people are warped by them, is as pertinent and as powerful today as it was in 1965. Pam’s pinched selfishness is a legacy born of her own parents’ coldness, and one that she would inevitably pass on to her child. An unloved child becomes an unloving mother — or, as we see in the play’s harrowing next minutes, a father who can casually participate in the murder of his own child.

The play goes on to illuminate one of life’s crueler paradoxes: Loving must be taught and learned, but the need to be loved is instinctive. Even as she neglects her baby, Pam is incapable of subsuming her desperate ache for the morally repellent Fred. She, too, is nothing more than a child with inchoate, amoral desires she can neither understand nor control. Ryan’s performance as Pam has its irritating excesses — the nervous wagging of the high-heeled foot — but it’s admirably fearless; no attempt is made to soften the monstrousness of her behavior, or seek sympathy for it by suggesting a softer, fully developed humanity underneath the brittle shell of self-interest.

Woodruff observes the rest of the characters with the same merciless eye, placing them in stylized tableaux that point up their moral blindness — Harry sitting in an armchair with a hand over his face for virtually an entire scene — or accenting ironies by crisply defining Bond’s scene endings with frozen poses and ominous rumblings and guitar music. (The first act, for instance, ends with Fred taking time for a cigarette before being arraigned for the killing of the baby.) The cast gives intelligent, clearly committed performances. Butz makes a strong impression in the role of Fred, and Rigby and Danson are well matched if a bit bland as the deeply embittered husband and wife. Starrett could use a shade more expressiveness in the key role of Len, but he gives an impressive and touching performance.

The clinical perspective is certainly defensible — indeed, the chilly tone of Woodruff’s production takes its cue directly from the text, in which the word “cold” recurs significantly — but the feeling of observing events taking place under a microscope naturally puts a lid on our emotional involvement in them; rather than pity and visceral horror, this production of “Saved” invites detached contemplation.

Woodruff’s only crucial mistake is to allow Bond’s significant gesture toward redemption to dissolve into the texture of the rest of the play. By the time this moment arrives, the audience may well be too numb for it to register. The staging here is also flawed: Rigby plays this most significant scene, in which Harry quietly implores Len to stay with the family, in profile; between the skewed perspective and the thick Cockney accent, he’s all but incomprehensible for much of the scene.

Bond famously called the play’s conclusion “almost irresponsibly optimistic,” something of an overstatement. But the silence of the final scene, after all the petty hectoring that has come before, does indeed carry a benevolent and hopeful charge. Tellingly, Woodruff changes our perspective on the living room for this final scene, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes also tell us that change is in the air: Pam’s fur-trimmed coat and busy dress have been abandoned in favor of something softer and plainer.

The frenzy of her need may be subsiding, and in its place may come a mature knowledge of love, Len’s love. That love — preposterous, absurdly illogical — is the spark of hope that Bond leaves us with. The curtain descends on Len trying to fix a broken chair. He’s not yet receiving the aid he asks for from Pam, but he’s not destroying or giving up out of frustration, either. He carries on with determination and dogged hope, quietly wrestling with — embracing — life and its arduous demands.

Saved

American Place Theater; 291 seats; $45 top

Production

A Theater for a New Audience presentation of a play in two acts by Edward Bond. Directed by Robert Woodruff.

Creative

Sets, Douglas Stein; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Leah Gelpe; music, Douglas Weiselman; dramaturg, Kathleen Dimmick; dialect coaches, Deborah Hecht, Charmian Hoare; production stage manager, Judith Schoenfeld. Artistic director, Jeffrey Horowitz. Opened Feb. 25, 2001. Reviewed Feb. 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Len - Pete Starrett Fred - Norbert Butz Harry - Terence Rigby Pete - Justin Hagan Colin - David Barlow Mike - Joey Kern Barry - Justin Campbell Pam - Amy Ryan Mary - Randy Danson Liz - Wendy Allegaert

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