Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Birthday Party"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Harold Pinter
directed by JoAnne Akalaitis

Petey … Terence Rigby
Meg … Karen MacDonald
Stanley … Thomas Derrah
Lulu … Elizabeth Laidlaw
Goldberg … Will LeBow
McCann … Remo Airaldi

When the A.R.T. curtain rose on its production of Harold Pinter’s THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, my toes curled at Paul Steinberg’s set design: instead of a seedy English boardinghouse in a coastal town, there were three proscenium-high walls, papered with what looked to be green and yellow yarn but turned out to be the ocean; suburban-looking furniture, far from threadbare, had settled on the ocean floor in show-room arrangements; the landlady --- way, way up --- handed down meals through the hatch of her underwater kitchen; in the final scene, Wall Left and Wall Right came forward, sweeping everything to center stage --- and this is a boardinghouse that is always “on the list”! But between the curtain going up and the walls closing down was a decent performance of Mr. Pinter’s horror-comedy about a reclusive boarder claimed by two mysterious visitors --- still, you know what they say about first impressions.

Watching a Pinter play is akin to reading a book missing its opening and closing chapters --- despite all that has been written about Mr. Pinter’s plays, they still refuse to give up their secrets. In THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, Mr. Pinter’s first full-lengther, Stanley the boarder is a pianist who refuses to go outdoors --- has he suffered a breakdown? (If not, he will suffer one, soon.) Has he committed a crime and is now in hiding? Goldberg and McCann, the two visitors, have come for him --- but why? They wear Stanley down with a barrage of words, smash his glasses and break his spirit, then take him away in their big, black car to meet up with “Monty” (no doubt, a neighbor of Mr. Beckett’s Godot); one interpretation is as good as another with material this enigmatic. There are two keys to Mr. Pinter’s door --- the first is context; the second is mood. Mr. Pinter was one of those postwar Angry Young Men who challenged the social and literary England of their day; what made Mr. Pinter unique was the darkness beneath his everyday chatter --- something was stirring and stretching its limbs amidst all the decorum and vaudeville turns (you either “got” Mr. Pinter or you didn’t). Though an ominous atmosphere tends to seep in like a gas, Mr. Pinter keeps the menace offstage or under wraps --- less is more. Like the plays of the late Joe Orton (so indebted to Mr. Pinter’s style!), Mr. Pinter’s canon cries out for a realistic approach; instead, director JoAnne Akalaitis brings the horror inside, unwraps it and underlines it with the set design, a humming soundtrack and those encroaching walls --- her ensemble is never allowed to create any mood or tension, themselves; Ms. Akalaitis and Mr. Steinberg do it all for them, hinting that something epic and profound might happen at any moment --- thus, the A.R.T. audience gets an evening of foreplay but no climax; if this is your first time with Mr. Pinter, you may walk out feeling cheated --- and instead of letting her ensemble incorporate those famous pauses and silences into the dialogue, Ms. Akalaitis hits the “pause” button then, after awhile, hits “play”, again (the same stop-start quality continues during the party’s blackout!), alternating with actors facing the audience and reciting like automatons. The only mood I felt was one of irritation but others might declare everything, boardinghouse included, to be quite brilliant.

The ensemble is composed mainly of A.R.T. regulars who can adapt to whatever vision crosses their paths. Despite his gifts for grotesquerie, Thomas Derrah can also be a subtly compelling actor, perfect for Pinter --- here, he has been directed to sulk, throws things and sprawl as another stage-Stanley altogether. There’s a first time for everything, yet I am reluctant to say that Mr. Derrah’s current performance is dutiful and dull, and he disappears for much of Act Two/Three even while he is onstage. Will LeBow, on the other hand, comes forward and his Goldberg is sleek, charming and, in his seduction of Lulu, borderline sexy. Remo Airaldi is supposedly playing an Irishman (though you could have fooled me), and the statuesque Elizabeth Laidlaw is a Lulu, indeed; if her accent is real, then I beg her pardon. The production may appear sunken, but Karen MacDonald and Terence Rigby stay afloat with their endearing portrayals of the motherly, coquettish Meg and Petey, her kindly, low-keyed husband --- the play’s norms who wouldn’t know Evil if it slithered up to them with an apple. Mr. Pinter tenderly charts their affectionate, prattling life together --- all cornflakes and the morning paper and talking about Stanley, their surrogate son --- between them, Ms. MacDonald and Mr. Rigby create a believable long-term marriage without condescension (though in other hands, Meg could become a shrill embarrassment). Ms. MacDonald, a handsome, sturdy woman, can play viragos and broads on demand but is rather enchanting when playing silly cows --- i.e. her Mother in Payne Ratner’s INFESTATION and, now, her definitive Meg. I still would like to see Ms. MacDonald as Kath in Joe Orton’s ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE (in a realistic setting!); after her warming-up for the role by way of Mr. Pinter, I shall stamp my feet even louder --- now that my toes have uncurled again.

"The Birthday Party" (6 - 27 March)
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 547-8300

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