Central Works specializes in collaboratively developed new plays, and it's rare that it brings in playwrights from outside the ensemble. That its latest production is a world premiere by Anne Galjour, the acclaimed local author-performer of bayou monologues such as Mauvais Temps and Hurricane, is an exciting development for the Berkeley theater company.
Unfortunately, Bird in the Hand, an eighty-minute ornithological stroll around present-day San Francisco, isn't particularly exciting. Not only is it a play about birdwatching, a niche interest, but the experience is a lot like birdwatching as well. Glimpses are offered of the characters hopping around in their yards or visiting parks and marshes to look for feathered friends, and once we watch long enough we see them reach out and interact with others of their own species. Ultimately, though, they don't do very much.
What's there is well performed by the cast of four (including the author), and Ellen Sebastian Chang's staging is often strikingly effective, as when Jan Zvaifler appears perched on the mantle of a fireplace built into the small room at the Berkeley City Club where the company performs its plays in the round. Her character Marian is on a ledge at Land's End, where her MIA husband used to come to watch birds, and she's seemingly at her wits' end.
The vignettes are punctuated by bird calls from the other actors sitting around the stage, which is certainly atmospheric and more haunting than simply piping in recordings of actual birds, but the cooing and chirping also gets distracting. In Lauren Elder's set the floor is scattered with leaves, with large potted plants and birdcages in the corners, and Tammy Berlin's casual costumes are dominated by autumnal browns.
Galjour and Joel Mullennix are Ruth and Ralph, a good-naturedly squabbling settled couple who have grown used to putting up with each other's pursuits that annoy them. She's a prim birder searching for California quail and peeping into their neighbors' bathroom through her binoculars, and he's a scavenging hippie who keeps pigeons (much to the neighborhood's dismay) and sometimes cooks them.
The two also play their own next-door neighbors Charmaine and Roman, who are on much less steady ground. (The couples don't interact, which keeps things simple.) Flooded out of New Orleans and waiting for her settlement, meek and nervous Charmaine is dominated by her yuppie boyfriend and takes comfort from watching and feeding a wild kingfisher that reminds her of home. Always off to the gym, Roman browbeats her about diet and exercise with an infuriatingly paternal air, as if she were a baby bird he'd taken in. There's a lot of buildup about what exactly he does in the bathroom, but that's the least of Charmaine's problems.
Meanwhile, Zvaifler's Marian actually does take in an injured sparrow with her officious next-door neighbor, whose house is full of birdcages and ornithological kitsch such as owls in the wall sconces. Terry Lamb is soft-spoken and prickly as Frank, who finds himself bonding with the neighbor who drives him up the wall with her brusque air and inappropriate comments, simply because they're both shaped by loss.
That's mostly what happens. Characters disconnected from themselves make tentative connections with each other just as you might start a conversation with the person sitting next to you on BART, just for something to do. Principally a monologuist, Galjour started doing plays for multiple actors with 2004's Okra, and Bird suffers from a sense that the characters are adrift in search of a plot. If Lamb is awkward as Ted, Marian's ex, when he shows up, it's because there's not much to him beyond the big shady hat and binoculars. Ted is the guy who left, a character defined by his absence, and he seems bewildered to be there.
Then, too, there's a lot of fowl talk. Ralph and Ruth take turns preaching to each other about the environment to defend their disparate interests, and each character is associated with a particular bird except Roman, but he's a jerk. The script is packed with avian metaphors. People talk about their nesting instinct, and bird guide Ted migrates seasonally.
"It's not a hobby; it's a calling," Ruth says of her quail-watching pursuit, and maybe Bird in the Hand is mostly one for the birders. As a play, however, it never takes flight.