'A Kind of Alaska'

Given the current state of the world, it seems a propitious moment to attend to the master's doom-laden voice once again.

The last time the Atlantic mounted a Pinter double bill (“The Room” and “Celebration,” in 2005), the company had a well-deserved hit. Given the current state of the world, it seems a propitious moment to attend to the master’s doom-laden voice once again — this time, on the themes of social anxiety (“The Collection”) and existential alienation (“A Kind of Alaska”). While this production doesn’t quite grasp the class hostility that gives “The Collection” its cruel chill, Lisa Emery plants an ice pick in the heart with her portrayal of a woman awakening from a decades-long coma in “A Kind of Alaska.”

Emery (“A Delicate Balance”) brings a physical delicacy to the role of Deborah, the 16-year-old girl who wakes up in the body of a 45-year-old woman in “A Kind of Alaska,” that intensifies the poignancy of her extraordinary situation. Sitting up for the first time in the hospital bed where she has been lying comatose for 30 years, she seems as fragile and insubstantial as a wraith. And when she speaks (“Something is happening!”), her voice is as light and musical as a child’s.

As surprising as it is, coming from a middle-aged woman, that lovely lyrical voice is even more astonishing coming from a playwright who turned his back on lyricism to build a new dramatic language out of silence. But by 1982, when he wrote the play, Pinter had worked out ways to make words cut as deeply as silence. And isn’t this play all about the alert but speechless mind, lying in a limbo where words are out of reach?

Just the thought of living without words must have been maddening to Pinter, who was inspired to write this play by Oliver Sacks’ “Awakenings.” As Emery cautiously gropes for the words to define the person Deborah thinks she is, it slowly dawns on her that if she learns this new language, she will lose her old identity forever.

Writing two decades earlier, in “The Collection,” the playwright was still exploring the spaces between the words, those fraught silences in which characters stepped back and reflected on whatever lies they had just spoken. In this 1962 one-act, someone is lying about what happened when Bill (Matt McGrath), the flashy young man who lives in Belgravia with stuffy old Harry (Larry Bryggman), went out of town for a fashion collection in Leeds, where he met Stella (Rebecca Henderson), the restless young wife of a jealous man named James (Darren Pettie).

Walt Spangler’s split set — all fussy, stylish elegance on one side and stark modernity on the other — visually conveys the separate and unequal social milieus inhabited by the two couples. (Although it beats all understanding why a fashion plate like Bill should be forced to wear paisley trousers and other similarly garish getups.)

But there’s little sense of the physical tension between these two worlds, which undercuts the danger whenever one of them intrudes on the other’s rigidly defined social turf. And while these dissemblers all glower at one another for the measured number of beats laid down by Karen Kohlhaas’ exacting helming, there’s an absence of real menace in their words.

As “A Kind of Alaska” seems to imply, maybe it was always about the words — and not the silences — after all.

The Collection & A Kind of Alaska

Atlantic Theater at Classic Stage; 146 seats; $20 top

Production

An Atlantic Theater Company presentation of two one-act plays by Harold Pinter. Directed by Karen Kohlhaas.

Creative

Sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Bobby Frederick Tilley II; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Obadiah Eaves; production stage manager, David H. Lurie. Opened and reviewed Nov. 20, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Harry/Hornby - Larry Bryggman James - Darren Pettie Stella/Pauline - Rebecca Henderson Bill - Matt McGrath Deborah - Lisa Emery

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