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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Birthday Party: Forever Impenetrable

Birthday Party
Barbara Bryne and Henry Stram
Harold Pinter's first full-length play, The Birthday Party, remains as enigmatic and impenetrable as it was when it premiered in London in 1958. Often described as a "comedy of menace," the pleasures of The Birthday Party lie in the wit and accuracy of its language, the dramatic sense of menace and danger it engenders, and the elusive, but not fruitless, pursuit of its truths and meanings. As performed exquisitely by the fine ensemble assembled by director Emily Mann at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, these pleasures are available in full measure.

For the past year, Stanley Webber has been holed up, the sole tenant at an extremely neglected and seedy boarding house in an English seaside town. He claims to be a pianist. The proprietors are an elderly couple, Meg and Petey Bowles. Meg, who is extremely silly and/or on the edge of senility, tries to mother Stanley. Stanley is nasty and at times even threatening to her. Believing it to be Stanley's birthday, Meg has bought him a present, a boy's drum. Enter two men who want to rent a room for the night. They are the dapper, middle-aged Goldberg (who contradictorily refers to himself by three different first names) and McCann, a large, casually dressed younger man who is in his employ. They have a "job" to do. Pinter conveys the sense that the "job" will be performed on Stanley, who is at extreme risk from them. Goldberg insists Meg throw a birthday party for Stanley. At the party, Goldberg and McCann ratchet up their intimidation of him with the result that Stanley has a nervous breakdown.

The next morning (act three), Stanley, whose breakdown has reduced him to babbling anguished gibberish, is taken away by McCann and Goldberg in the latter's limousine. Petey asks them, "Where are you taking him?". Goldberg responds, "We're taking him to Monty." Monty will know how to deal with him. Who and what is Monty? As with all else in this play, you will have to decide for yourself. However, a hopeful note is sounded when Petey tells the departing Stanley, "Don't let them tell you what to do."

Barbara Bryne and James A. Stephens mesh beautifully as Meg and Petey Bowles. Bryne displays a cheerful good humor as the somewhat daft Meg which enables us to relate to the understated warmth and caring which Stephens skillfully conveys. Henry Stram is a compelling Stanley, portraying aggression, fear and collapse while maintaining his enigmatic persona.

Allan Corduner projects with sufficient subtly the sense of menace represented by the sociopath Goldberg, even as he turns on the oily charm. Randall Newsome in the role of McCann displays a softness in the form of some ambivalence about his destructive "job" which will always make him subservient to the likes of Goldberg. Charlotte Parry is fine as an easily seduced and abused, pretty young thing, Lulu.

Director Emily Mann has captured the many nuances at play here without sacrificing the natural rhythms of speech which Pinter reproduces so well in his writing. Eugene Lee's huge boarding house set is a beauty. It is an eye-filling panoply of neglect and decay. The two-level set (plus a bit of an attic) includes the large see-through windows for food service from the kitchen to the living room-dining room as called for in the script in their full glory.

The only flaw in this production is that this three act play is performed with only one intermission which occurs at the end of the second act. This throws matters out of balance. As played here without intermission, the arc of the first two acts (which occur over the course of a full day) is such that they feel like a long one act play. As a result, the 30-minute third act feels somewhat anticlimactic.

The Birthday Party succeeds by encouraging and stimulating us to make the search. If we find ourselves constructing ethnic, religious, political, social, sexual, philosophic or allegorical interpretations, simultaneously or serially, the playwright has succeeded in his goal. Don't take my word for it. Just last December in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Harold Pinter said:

... Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it, but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavor. The search is your task .... But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.

What is most tantalizing about The Birthday Party is its ability to elicit differing interpretations – for me, Kafkaesque political ones resonant most strongly.

Critic's Note: Debuting five years after Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and in the same year as Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, The Birthday Party is categorized along with those works as a part of the "Theatre of the Absurd." This term is not a designation of a movement in playwriting or of a group of writers who categorize themselves. The categorization is an invention of the late critic and scholar Martin Esslin, designed to study and understand disparate plays which eschew the linear structure of traditional well-crafted plays. Esslin has written that "the playwrights concerned no longer believe in the possibility of ... neatness of resolution. They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world. If they could believe in clearly defined motivations, acceptable solutions, settlements of conflict in tidily tied up endings, these dramatists would certainly not eschew them. But, quite obviously, they have no faith in the existence of so rational and well ordered a universe conditioned by clear and comforting beliefs, a stable scale of values, an ethical system in full working condition."

The Birthday Party continues performances through October 15, 2006 (Tues.-Thurs. 7:30 p.m./ Fri. 8 p.m./ Sat. 3 p.m. & 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. – No Performances the evenings of 10/1, 10/3, 10/10) at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton 08540; Box Office: 609-258-2787; online www.mccarter.org.

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter; directed by Emily Mann
Cast

Meg………………Barbara Bryne
Petey…………..James A. Stephens
Stanley……………….Henry Stram
Lulu……............Charlotte Parry
Goldberg………..Allan Corduner
Mccann….......Randall Newsome


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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