Don't go into The Birds expecting a pretty blonde trapped in a phone booth or thousands of finches pouring out of a fireplace. The play, adapted by Conor McPherson from Daphne du Maurier's short story, shares nothing with the famous Alfred Hitchcock film besides a title and the conceit that, without warning, all the world's birds have suddenly turned into bloodthirsty pecking machines.
The production is the last one on Theatre Three's basement stage, Theatre Too, before the space becomes an incubator for new works by local artists, as was promised by incoming T3 artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt. It also reinforces the wisdom in Schmidt's dramatic programming shift, as this conventional play is the sort of tired, dreary offering that leaves audiences with a lackluster impression of live theater.
But things at least get off to a promising start. First-time director John Ruegsegger is also T3's technical director, so Scott Osborn's set — the cellar of an abandoned country house in rural Mississippi — looks appropriately creepy and claustrophobic. It takes a little mental effort to map the rest of the home's layout, but once it's established which door leads out to what's supposedly certain death, everything starts to make a little more sense.
Only a little, though. Irish playwright McPherson is known for haunting scripts such as The Weir and The Veil, but this one abandons terror for tedium. It also bears little in common with du Maurier's original story, which centers on a farmhand and his family in post-war Britain. Ruegsegger's inexperience shows in how his cast treats the outside threat with nonchalant forgetfulness (perhaps don't leave that door hanging open), or barely flinches when the birds launch their one great attack on the home (Marco Salinas' sound design pipes in stock bird sounds from one corner of the theater).
The quartet of actors, all making their T3 debuts, might as well be in separate shows. It's unclear how the vaguely menacing Nat (Jamall Houston) and uptight Diane (Felicia Bertch) met during this avian apocalypse, or what Nat's illness at the start of the show portends, but regardless they are building a piecemeal life together in the cellar until young ragamuffin Julia (Madison Hart) shows up. Julia claims to have escaped from a relief center, where the crowd turned violent and destructive, but her story doesn't fully hold up in Diane's eyes.
Nor is it particularly interesting in ours, as the potentially exciting details are brushed aside for endless paranoid catfights between Julia and Diane, with Nat alternately mumbling and shouting (but the birds can hear you, Nat!). A weak love triangle further muddies the story. When Julia and Nat set out for supplies, Diane finally has a run-in with their mysterious neighbor from across the lake (Greg Holt).
With his entrance, Holt brings the show's only wave of real tension. He's wild-eyed, unpredictable, and more than a little scary, but the fact that Bertch picks up an ancient tennis racquet instead of the hammer that's sitting right next to it when he enters the cellar drains the scene of its hard-won adrenaline. The unspoken assumption that, like all post-apocalyptic thrillers, humans are a bigger threat than whatever monster they're hiding from is dashed with moments like this. In this world, it seems you can simply swat the danger away.
Theatre's Three's production of The Birds continues at Theatre Too through June 18.