Back when modernism was new, a standard joke used to be that a modern painting looked just as good upside down. Sometimes the painters themselves agreed. The second half of the Atlantic Theater Company’s new double bill, comprising that quintessential theatrical modernist Harold Pinter’s first and last plays, The Room and Celebration, demonstrates the half-truth holds half true for modern plays as well as paintings. Artistic director Neil Pepe seems to have set out to reverse all the standard directional signals in these equivocal, disturbing works. This has glum effects on The Room, a quietly unnerving piece that’s meant to start banal and end in deep, bewildering darkness. Pepe lays the darkness on thickly from the start, with heavy film-noir adumbrations of menace to come, treading slowly on each simple beat, spoiling what might have been a strong performance by Mary Beth Peil as the inexplicably beleaguered heroine, and ending in puzzlingly gentle vagueness.
Things brighten considerably, in every sense, with Celebration, a nasty, funny, and lively work that seems literally to be celebrating the end of the last millennium. In a madly expensive restaurant, where the diners are all viciously stupid and self-concerned, the staff all seem to be faintly gaga, their brains having worn away from the strain of keeping up a tradition they no longer understand. Directed by Pinter for the London company that played at Lincoln Center some years back, this picture seemed uniformly dark and spiky; Pepe’s production gives the negative emotions full play too, but shows surprising sparks of camaraderie and love mixed in with the vicious teasing. Far from diminishing the play’s somber reverberations, this enhances them, and the end touches the authentic Pinter disquietude. Some modernist works do look just as good upside down.