What stayed with me from my childhood reading of Saki was the sense of eerie irony, along with the threatening feeling of something wild lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization. What actually happened in the stories mattered less. But Toby Davies' stage adaptation of a selection of the stories has brought back both the mood and the materials, and made it clear to your humble reviewer, though he must shamefacedly admit to not having re-read Saki as an adult, that the tales retain their punch.
Mr. Davies has woven a number of Saki's short stories into a web of darkly funny, skit-like scenes, populated by an assortment of broadly drawn and eloquently written characters all played by four fabulously droll actors. The cast, like Mr. Davies, director Thomas Hescott, and, sadly, H. H. Munro (alias Saki) himself, won't be too familiar to American audiences – not, at any rate, as familiar as playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who is also represented at this year's "Brits Off Broadway" series at 59E59 Theaters. But do catch this production if you have a chance – it's a delight, and a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with Saki, who was born in 1870 and died fighting in World War One.
Dark and sometimes macabre materials, laid out with a humorous touch – that's Saki, and this play is faithful to the writer's tone. Animals star in many of the selected tales (Mr. Davies has drawn from ten). An ancient tiger is goaded via his own predatory instincts into becoming prey for two absurd British huntresses. A woman uses a tiny, tyrannical dog to lord it over her household. A cat learns to talk, but with disastrous consequences for his elegant self when the family that once adored him realizes with horror that "He's heard…everything…" And always there are the wolves of the title, baying and howling in the background (just one element of Tim Saward's effective sound design), advancing in literal fashion into more than one story, turning the haughty, hunting homo sapiens into the hunted.
Even when there's no animal per se there are predator and prey. In the very first story, a grifter tries to gull a smart-ass, who ends up betrayed not by actual gullibility but by an unexpected twist of fate. In the last, a violent end awaits two feuding neighbors, who have buried the hatchet only to fall victim to a literal manifestation of the old "if a tree falls in the forest" question. A malevolent core hums at the center of everything, taking on various guises: petty human deceit, real wild animals – or a vengeful Pan, jealously guarding the tribute left for him. Pan's appeaser is a gentleman who has taken a holiday in the country reluctantly, but adjusted rather more successfully to pagan ways than his jittery wife.
Cleverly constructed and gracefully directed – and superbly lit by Richard Howell – this devilish evening of theater is as enchanting as it is eerie, with many laughs, brilliant acting, and a number of effective goosebump moments. It, just like its source material, could have come from nowhere but Britain. "I suppose," says the con artist in the opening skit, "you think I've spun you quite the impossible yarn." But Saki isn't pulling the wool over our eyes. He's exposing bloody nature. "I've heard it said," declares the city gentleman, "that the Wood Gods are rather horrible to those who molest them." Indeed. Saki meant to skewer Edwardian manners and mores. But when it comes to the human animal, things change very little, whatever century you're in or continent you're on. See this show, then go forth from the theater into the wilds of Midtown, and watch your back.
Wolves at the Window runs through Dec. 6 at 59E59 Theaters, NYC.