"The Birthday Party" - The Theater Mirror Reviews

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"The Birthday Party"

Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Thomas Luddy

Petey...........................Joe Salvatore
Meg.............................Sheri Apprille
Stanley........................Danny Swain
Lulu.............................Nicole Sugana Fuller
Goldberg.....................peter cosmas sofronas
McCann.......................Michael Schmidt

Scenic Design by James J. Fallon
Costume Design by Hope Leigh Becker
Lighting Design by James J. Fallon
Sound Design by Thomas Luddy

at Salem State Theatre DATES: 22 THRU 30 February
Salem State College
Salem, Mass.
Information: (508) 741-6290
Tickets: (508) 741-6999

Pinter's "The Birthday Party" is right at home in Salem State's Callan Studio. Every seat in the small theatre puts you where Pinter would want to keep you: so close to the stage that by Act II, your proximity to the players will make you edgy.

The play opens like a family sitcom, with the man and woman of the house, Petey and Meg (Joe Salvatore and Sheri Apprille), unwittingly tormenting one another as long-married folks often do. Like a British Archie Bunker, Petey suffers his wife's relentless good cheer, insistent attentions, and superfluous questions. "Is that your paper?" she asks as he's trying to read. "Is it nice?"

Apprille is wonderful as the solicitous housewife whose apron is more generously contoured than her cortex. And Salvatore's Petey is perfect down to the last, unfashionable working-class detail, including an errant belt protruding boldly from under his Cardigan like the hilt of a surrogate sword.

The play's three acts are set in a single space: the dining room and adjacent parlor of Meg and Petey's seaside boarding house in England. Designed by James Fallon, the set features papered walls that are jagged at top where they would normally meet the ceiling, suggesting that the place has been ripped out of context, away from the supporting structure. Fallon reinforces the impression with the parquet flooring: Its edges look as though they were cut with a giant jigsaw.

The tension in each act builds toward an anticipated event. In Act I, it's the arrival of two new boarders. Act II culminates in the birthday party. Act III leads to...well, the ending.

In Act I Petey is matter-of-fact about the prospect of welcoming new boarders, but Meg is alarmed. The boarding house hasn't seen a new guest in about a year, since the coming of Stanley (Danny Swain), now a long-term resident. Like many of Pinter's characters, Stanley is a creature of habit, and Meg lives to chronicle his comings and goings. Each morning she delivers tea to his bedside, and awaits his coming down to breakfast as the event of the day. Finally he emerges from the stairway in bathrobe and bare feet, looking so rumpled you can practically smell the sleep on his unwashed body.

Swain, as Stanley, is riveting. He is as adept at capturing his character's terror as he is at depicting his insolence. Fearful of meeting up with the new guests, Stanley goes to pieces before our eyes. His dread is visibly incapacitating.

In the flesh, the new boarders turn out to be a natty couple, their suits and brief cases distinguishing them from their working-class hosts. Peter cosmas sofronas gives Goldberg--the pair's leader--a Carey Grant accent, and swallows his words so that they're sometimes unintelligible. But perhaps it's deliberate. As the boss man, Goldberg can communicate how and when he likes. If you don't get the message, you suffer the consequences.

Michael Schmidt as the second boarder, McCann, is both fastidious and menacing. One senses McCann could kill someone if he didn't have to get his hands dirty. He has a compulsive habit of tearing columns of newsprint from the newspaper, placing them side by side on the table. With the utmost care and orderliness, he makes a mockery of meaning.

Stanley's dread, as you might suspect, turns out to be well-grounded. The new boarders seem to regard him as a problem that needs resolving. Or perhaps as a defective model that's being recalled. And by the time the party (including Nicole Sugana Fuller as flirtatious young Lulu) has gathered for Stanley's birthday celebration--over Stanley's protests that it isn't his birthday--his days at the boarding house are numbered in the single digits. But you probably weren't expecting cake and ice cream.

"Was it nice?," several theatre-goers asked one another in their best cockney accents as they were leaving the show. No, not nice, really. But good. Quite good.

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide