Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Provocative Production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party was first seen in May 1958 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, and the London reviews were generally dreadful. Harold Hobson's review in the Sunday Times was the only positive one, and he said every other London critic was wrong and this was a groundbreaking, exciting drama. Unfortunately, that review came out after the producers decided to close the show after the third performance. A combination of the positive impact of the Times review and a reaction against the negative tone of the other reviews contributed to a change in the playwright's fortunes. The intriguing drama was revived over the next two years and to this day it is frequently produced.
The Actors Workshop of San Francisco in 1961 was the first company to present the play in this country. New Yorkers did not see the intriguing drama until September 16, 1967 at the Booth Theatre with a cast that included Ed Flanders, Ruth White and James Patterson, who won a Tony for Best Featured Actor. The American Broadcasting Company filmed the drama in 1968 with Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee and Dandy Nichols. Berkeley Repertory did a good production twenty years ago with Barbara Olivier and Tony Amendola.
Harold Pinter's play has been over-analyzed through the years, almost as much as Waiting for Godot. The play is set in the 1950s during the depression era in England. Meg (Phoebe Moyer) and her husband Petey (Chris Ayles) run a boarding house in a seacoast town. Meg is a dotty housewife who could probably drive a person mad with her incessant small talk about nothing in particular. Petey is a deck chair attendant so he gets away from the talkative woman most of the day.
Stanley (James Carpenter) is the couple's only guest and he has been there for over a year. The unemployed, slovenly dressed man who allegedly was a pianist bullies Meg all day. However, Meg has some sort of hold on him that might be from a sexual affair in the past. Stanley flirts with a young neighbor, Lulu (Emily Jordan), who is frantic to have a sexual encounter with him. Meg informs Stanley that there will be a birthday party in his honor that very night (even though his birthday is a month later). She also announces that two men are coming to stay at the house. Stanley becomes very agitated about these two men, and the audience realizes that he has had a dark past.
Two men dressed in black suits, white shirts and black ties, looking like characters from Men In Black, arrive. Goldberg (Julian Lopez-Morillas), a smooth-talking, self-assured Englishman, is the leader, while McCann (Michael Ray Wisely) is the henchman with an Irish accent. The two submit Stanley to a terrifying interrogation full of Pinter's truncated dialogue. Stanley becomes a frantic, gibbering wreck following the question and answer period.
The birthday party is a monstrous travesty that ends in a horrendous game of blind man's bluff. The lights go out and McCann's flashlight discovers a deranged Stanley trying to rape Lulu. The next morning Stanley has lost his power of speech and he is taken away in a car by the two men.
Pinter's drama is open to many interpretations political, allegorical, religious (Goldberg is a Jew while McCann is an Irish Catholic) and psychological. It is up to the viewer to determine what he or she has seen. (During the evening of the first rehearsal in 1958, director Peter Wood asked Pinter to write some additional lines for Stanley, to clarify the mystery of his circumstances. Pinter refused, explaining that the ambiguity was central to the play and to seek precise explanations was to miss the point. In his letter to the director, Pinter said, "Meaning begins in the words, in the action, continues in your head and ends nowhere.")
Director Tom Ross has assembled a brilliant cast to play these interesting characters. Phoebe Moyer (received the SFBATCC award for Principal Performance in The Entertainer plus many roles in Bay Area Theatre including the recent Learned Ladies of Park Avenue) is marvelous in the role of the clueless Meg. Moyer does a wonderful tour de force of acting as a boisterous woman who has had just too much to drink in the second act.
James Carpenter (The Master Builder, Scrooge in ACT's A Christmas Carol) is outstanding as the mysterious, disheveled Stanley. He gives a dynamic performance in an unsympathetic role, and his performance of Stanley's resistance to the conformity of the two mysterious men is admirable.
Julian Lopez-Morillas (Ice Glen, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder) gives off a charismatic, self-confident performance as Goldberg. His dialogue about every little detail of his past life is brilliantly rendered. Michael Ray Wisely (The Tempest at SF Shakespeare Festival) gives a sinister performance as the Irish henchman McCann. These two are meant to represent repressive religious forces. Their confrontation with Stanley in the second act is frightening.
Emily Jordan (Woman's Will, Richard III) gives a great, energetic performance as the young lady who is looking for a boyfriend. Chris Ayles (Noises Off at the Willows) is very good as the laid back Petey.
Director Tom Ross's piercingly accomplished staging stands out in the play's darkly humorous twists. Dialect Coach Deborah Eubanks gets bravos for giving wonderful English accents to the whole cast.
Richard Olmsted's set design with the dull brown floral wall paper and cheap little porcelain statues of dogs about the back wall of the three-sided theatre is splendid. This is the typical middle class boarding house one would see in the seaside towns in southern England.
You will either love or hate the play, but it does test your imagination and will require you to think about what you see. (At the post-theatre party, everyone was offering their thoughts about what the play told them, which is a sign of an excellent play.)
The Birthday Party plays at the Aurora Theatre Company Theatre through March 4th. The theatre is located at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-843-4832 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. Their next production will be Private Jokes, Public Places by Oren Safdie. It opens on April 6 and runs through May 13th.