Thursday, January 18, 2018

"The Birthday Party"

The Birthday Party
Harold Pinter

Dan Hiatt & Judith Ivey
If after twenty-five years of being Artistic Director someone is directing a play for the last time in that role, what better thing to do than throw a party, correct?  But when that party is scripted by Harold Pinter, there is no guarantee the games are not going to get a bit scary and dangerous, even if the guests are only playing “Blind Man’s Bluff.”  Carey Perloff takes her bow as director while in the A.D. role of the American Conservatory Theatre; and she earns a well-deserved standing ovation for the humor, intrigue, mystery, sweetness, pathos, and horror that she gleans out of Harold Pinter’s often obscure, contradictory, and totally magnificent script – all accomplished through a to-die-for cast and a creative team’s brilliant imaginations.

Pinter and Perloff are quite the team and together know how to lure in an audience with an opening scene that is hilarious in its innocence and silliness.  (Woe be to any Pinter-neophytes who have no idea what is about to hit them a half hour later.)  Peety Boles is a sixty-something chair attendant in a beach community somewhere south of London and is coming in for his breakfast and to read the morning paper.  Meg is serving with big smiles (and I do mean ‘big’) his Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, bubbling “Are they nice?  I thought they’d be nice.” 

Veteran Bay Area actor Dan Hiatt and two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey are together worth the price of the ticket in their roles as the married couple and proprietors of a somewhat plain and run-down boarding house on the beach.  Ms. Ivey takes the word “nice” (a word that is definitely her favorite and her most-repeated descriptor) and elongates it with her high-pitched, ever-so-pleasant voice into some version only Edith Bunker from All in the Family could come close to imitating.  She continues to ask her patient but rather unresponsive husband question after question, none of which really requires or gets much of an answer.  Their back-and-forth has 1950s sitcom written all over it but with a strange quality that even as one laughs, there is a sense of something surreal and absurd creeping into the conversation as it continues.

Judith Ivey & Firdous Bamji
After Meg begins to wonder where “Stanley” is and actually goes upstairs to get him (with our hearing only her roller-coaster laughter sounding like a teasing teen and his loud grumbles and protests), Stanley in fact appears disheveled, in wrinkled sleepwear and a bathrobe hardly hanging on to his body.  We learn that Stanley has actually been a boarder for a year (and seemingly the only one) and is a piano player who claims he has played “all over the world,” only to change that quickly to “all over the country,” and then (after a pause) to admit, “I once gave a concert.”  Morose and aggressively resistant to Meg’s playfulness and pleasantness, Stanley rejects the morning’s corn flakes complaining of sour milk and warns Meg “they’re coming ... in a van with a big wheelbarrow” and “they’re looking for someone.”  Firdous Bamji employs silence, shrugs, and stares to maximum effect to create a Stanley Webber who is a wound-up, tightly controlled (and controlling) mystery that makes us all immediately wonder why is Meg so obviously fond of him. 

The play soon begins to shift ever-so-slightly into Pinter Land, where more and more questions – often asked with no rhyme or reason and certainly getting no answers -- come in wave after wave; where references are made to unseen/unknown “they;” where contradictions pepper the landscape, and where identities of those we meet are difficult to discern as to backgrounds, reasons for their being there, and even what their actual names are.  And throughout the journey, Director Carey Perloff is clearly having a ball keeping us guessing who is in control at any given moment in situations where the tides shift and turn without much logic as to why.

Marco Barricelli & Scott Wentworth
Pinter and Perloff up the ante as two new boarders arrive, introducing themselves as Goldberg and McCann (although they are called and call themselves be a variety of other names, too).  Their entry brings a darker tone and an air of threat and a sense of impending doom into the room, even as Goldberg himself is as glad-handing and full of big smiles as a politician seeking votes.  Scott Wentworth is New Jersey, gangster sleek-and-slick as Goldberg in his tailored-to-a-‘t’ suit and perfectly combed hair while Marco Barricelli as McCann has the ominous look of a backroom roughneck in his black leather jacket; deep-set eyes; and wide, hunched-over shoulders.  Even though Stanley seems visibly irritated and concerned by their sudden presence, Meg is absolutely delighted, especially when Goldberg insists they hold a birthday party that very night for Stanley (who denies it is actually his birthday).

Firdous Bamji, Julie Adamo & Scott Wentworth
For any audience member trying to make sense of exactly what is happening and is about to happen from here on out, the undertaking will only be fruitless.  As in any Pinter play, the idea is to hold on to the chair and enjoy the ride into an unknown that may have few bearings that make sense of where we are going.  Into the mix and just to make things even more bizarre comes Lulu (Julie Adamo) whose name is a pretty good descriptor of Meg’s twenty-something, bouncy, sexy friend who quickly has eyes and more for Goldberg and who becomes part of a game of quest he plays once the birthday party begins in earnest.  Why she is there and how she fits into the story (whatever that is) is only one more of the Pinteresque elements that make this play so much fun while it is also so confounding and even disturbing.

The immense set of Nina Ball is symbolic of the entire play’s structure and underlying but skeletal message.  There is a claustrophobic feel to the one-room house we see, with walls on three sides that open up to a roof that is only a broken outline of itself, giving an sense of unsafe insecurity.  Behind the house is a humongous drift of sand, almost appearing as a silent, rolling monster that might swallow the house at any moment.  To the side and barely noticeable are two deck chairs facing an unseen sea where characters escape to relax and chat seemingly enjoying themselves (but in scenes we never really see since we are confined to witness only the rising questions and threats of the inside).  The lighting design of Robert Hand and the sound design of Darron L. West only enhance both the seaside setting and the interior’s crazy sense of kidlike play mixed with adult-felt uncertainties.  Candice Donnelly completes the picture with costumes that define the personalities and enhance both the naivite and the threats that exist side by side in this room.

Harold Pinter grew up escaping as a child the Blitzkrieg that Hitler rained down upon England.  He wrote this play as the Cold War was gearing up, as nuclear bombs were being tested, and as the McCarthy period was just coming to a close after ruining hundreds of lives.  The real and unspecified threats coming from seen and unseen sources that emerge in The Birthday Party -- while at the same time life just goes on with pots of tea and bottles of Irish whiskey to be consumed and enjoyed -- perhaps resonate in 2018 more than at any time since the play premiered forty-one years ago. The treatment given by this cast and director leaves us all scratching our heads upon leaving due to all the unanswered questions raised (like why did the chicken cross the road?).  But we are also looking over our shoulders to see what threats are perhaps out there waiting for us, too.  Carey Perloff and the American Conservatory Theatre produce a near-flawless version of a Pinter classic – one that will surely delight Pinter fans and one that will confound and perhaps be dismissed by all those who are not.

Rating: 4 E

The Birthday Party runs through February 4, 2018 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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