The Birds, Conor McPherson’s creepy new play, is derived neither from Aristophanes nor Alfred Hitchcock. It does, however, share DNA with the 1963 film because both draw from a short story by Daphne du Maurier. (Hitchcock also used du Maurier novels as source material for Jamaica Inn and his Oscar-winning Rebecca.) Don’t expect to find real birds or even simulated ones in the pocket drama at 59E59 Theaters. Fans of the movie won’t find a pompous female ornithologist with environmental concerns or a schoolteacher with her eyes pecked out either.
Rather, McPherson, who has made a name for himself with eerie dramas that occasionally invoke the supernatural—The Weir, Seafarer and Shining City—has produced an apocalyptic vision with only four characters. It’s an end-of-the-world scenario that simultaneously echoes the Bible’s origin story in Genesis.
In a remote house in the United States—Sonoma County isn’t mentioned, nor is Bodega, Calif., where the iconic white schoolhouse in the film resides—a man and a woman have taken refuge following waves of bird attacks. Director Stefan Dzeparoski pulls the audience in close with two long aisles dividing Konstantin Roth’s set into quarters and a small central area that is the main playing space. Marked as House in chalk by Antoinette LaVecchia’s Diane, it is here that she has been nursing Nat (Tony Naumovski) for two days, since they found refuge from the bird attacks. As in the film, there is no explanation of the avian uprising, although the birds seem to arrive and depart with the tides (it’s an annoying and unaddressed question why land birds, like sparrows, robins and crows, would be affected by the tides as seagulls might be—surely they aren’t flying out over the ocean?).
Soon after Nat’s fever breaks, a strange young woman named Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) arrives. Although Diane and Nat are in their forties, and some warmth inhabits the periphery of their relationship, Julia is in her early twenties and she has been traveling with gangs of thugs but surviving—yet how? McPherson gives Nat a history of what might be mental illness, or at least mental instability; it makes Diane apprehensive. For her part, Diane meticulously chronicles their days in a diary—she’s an author who is estranged from her family. As the trust breaks down in this nuclear “family” the tension builds.
Ien DeNio’s sound design—scratchy radio broadcasts and the flutter and flap of lethal wings outside their shelter—further enhances a sense of isolation and raises the weirdness quotient. Moreover, there’s evidence of an occupant in a house across the lake, although humans are hard to find, and trips outside their shelter have to be timed between bird attacks.
After a reconnaissance mission during which she claims to have gotten lost, Julia shows up with cans of food from a house whose location she claims she can’t remember. But Diane later discovers the cans of food match gifts from the mysterious occupant across the lake, who, in a brief scene with her, brings them to her along with an unusual proposal. (Naumovski doubles as the character, wearing a terrific get-up designed by Kate R. Mincer, with an inverted birdcage for a helmet.)
The chills increase as Julia, the serpent in this macabre Eden, seduces Tony and becomes pregnant—or so she says. The play is a cautionary tale about violating the natural order and about facing the end of the world. Naumovski is excellent as the troubled hero, plagued by growing alcoholism and the demands to lead the threesome; Diane assumes the most rational role and yet at the end she proves ruthless; and Hutchinson-Shaw invests the high-spirited Julia with both immaturity and deceit.
Dzeparoski keeps the atmosphere dark and Kia Rogers’ lighting dim (contrary to points in McPherson’s script when windows are open). That’s effective in increasing the claustrophobia, but the director also tacks on a wordless coda that muddles the ending. McPherson’s finale, with objects chronicling the beginning and the end of the world in a spotlight, is more effective. Still, if you attend without the expectation of screaming, you’ll find this character study fascinating and unsettling.
Conor McPherson’s The Birds plays through Oct. 1 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and at 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (no performances on Sept. 21, 23, 28 and 30). Matinees are at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visiting 59e59.org.