A friend of mine has a taste for the higher – and more twisted – end of jigsaw puzzles, where bespoke creations can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Imagine eagerly dumping out several hundred intricately scroll-sawn chips of wood – only to discover they’re all exactly the same color. When assembled, they create an unbroken visual field of silver, red, black, or white. (For a fee, you can even forego the paint, and try to reassemble the original surface based on the polished wood grain’s details, alone.)

It gets stranger than that: jigsaw puzzles whose irregular borders offer no straight or corner edges for a frame, and those in which bluffs have been added – pieces that look like they belong, but don’t actually fit anywhere. For my money, though, the most fiendish sets are the ones with no photo on the box. Only a title and written description of the pattern guide the players in assembling the puzzle.

Theatergoers find themselves in a similar circumstance with Harold Pinter‘s Moonlight, December’s offering at Burning Coal Theatre Company. The 1993 drama, which marked the Nobel laureate’s first full-length play after his landmark 1978 work Betrayal, embeds a family’s troubled history in a theatrical cryptogram.

At its center are a set of bedside conversations between the aging, ailing, and fractious central character, Andy (an agitated Simon Kaplan), and Bel, his wife (played, with sangfroid to spare, by seldom-seen stage veteran Tamara Farias). These are abutted by a series of elliptical, peripheral monologues and exchanges among supporting characters: their estranged sons, Jake and Fred (rising actor Khoa Pham and Little Green Pig alumni John Jimerson, respectively), enigmatic daughter Bridget (Susanna Skaggs, who scored in the Coal’s October production of Arcadia), and their once-close friends, Ralph and Maria (notables Mark Filiaci and Jenn Suchanec, in another rare sighting).

Those expecting wistful, tender reminiscences from Andy as he eyes what may be his final curtain don’t know Pinter. He rips the gloves off early on, as the vinegary patriarch castigates a wife clearly accustomed to his invective. After acidly observing “what a wonderful woman you were,” Andy concludes, “You’ve never been nonplussed in the whole of your voracious, lascivious, libidinous life!”

Pillow talk like that alone might make many of us seek a vigorous divorce. Here, though, it’s only the warm-up for a recital of recriminations as Andy looks back over his life. These include unseemly, in-your-face assertions of sexual affairs – Andy’s own, as well as those he accuses Bel of, with Maria and Ralph. For all of their boorishness, however, the slurs cause barely a pause in Bel’s imperturbable embroidery. That craft is only interrupted by the winces of pain that interrupt Andy’s diatribes, as she looks up in concern, and moves to help or comfort him.

Of course, we have to wonder why Bel hangs in there with such a jerk. We also debate how much credence to give Andy’s claims, not only of his roisterous infidelities but how sick he actually is. That’s particularly the case since Andy primarily uses repeated references to his deathbed to denounce the conspicuously missing kith and kin.

But the real cryptography gets underway here when the ancillary scenes mentioned above give us baffling glimpses into the others’ lives. After older brother Jake rouses younger Fred from bed in an undisclosed location, he regales him with an extended, imaginative riff: a fictive account of a board of trustees meeting to determine their inheritance. As Fred quizzes Jake on the particulars, both clearly mock their father’s self-aggrandizement and pomposity, in the rapid-fire give-and-take of a comic music hall routine.

But an audience has to be able to keep up with the flow for the punches to land. Intelligibility and wit both suffered Friday night when Pham and Jimerson barreled through an airless, warp-speed recital of these lines – a circumstance that had improved markedly by Sunday’s matinee.

In other, similar flights of fancy, the pair play-act characters drawn from father’s work in civil service – darker, threatening figures whose presence hints at domestic abuse.

But at their most oblique, we scramble to make any coherent connection between these satellite scenes and the world of the work. Bridget’s opening monologue establishes a daughter’s too-dutiful relationship with her parents, and a later teenage squabble with her siblings provides some context for their relationships. But what sense, if any, does directors Greg Hersov and Lynda Clark make of Bridget’s presumably pivotal mid-show monologue, lifted from an African combat narrative from the Second World War? Skaggs isn’t served very well here as they have her aimlessly dawdle through Christopher Popowitch‘s briefly dappled light design.

And, to be fair, a cryptogram isn’t truly solvable if the audience doesn’t have all the puzzle pieces. Pinter’s script contains a riddle that remains undisclosed in this production. At the front, Bridget is described in the text as “a girl of sixteen,” while brothers Jake and Fred are 28 and 27 years old.

But in the teenage flashback scene, when the brothers are said to be 18 and 17, the script says Bridget is 14 years old.

Why do the boys gain a decade after that, while Bridget only ages two more years? When does her opening monologue actually take place in relationship to Bel and Andy’s central scenes? And what might these brain teasers have to do with her continuing absence, along with Andy’s three grandchildren?

How many excursions in time do we take among these cryptic sidebars, as Maria and Ralph extol Andy’s virtues to his sons, before a chillier reception upon reuniting with their parents?

On designer Tom Burch‘s minimal set, backed by Meredith Riggan’s gorgeous quadriptych of the lunar surface, Clark and Hersov draw telling and graphic parallels in the relationship dynamics between Andy and Bel and those of Fred and Jake. But perhaps the most illuminating moments in this thought-provoking production disclose the stealthy loneliness and ennui of hospice and the persistent state of uncertainty in a potentially fatal illness.

Moonlight wryly notes that when one so thoroughly alienates an entire community, they generally don’t stick around for the last act. When Andy bemoans again the absence of Maria, saying, “I can’t die without her,” Bel dispassionately corrects him: “Of course you can. And you will.”

Beyond that single serving of poetic justice, though, Pinter’s jigsaw meditation on final things probes how our relationships with the past, present, and future remain liminal, while exploring where we situate – and then resituate – ourselves among them in any time of transition. Recommended.

Moonlight continues at Burning Coal through Sunday, December 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.