BY LYNN LEE
The Birthday Party takes place by the sea. A detail all too easily overlooked, it comes across with startling force in the A.R.T.’s current production of Harold Pinter’s early foray into the theater of the absurd. All of the action takes place within the living room of an English seaside boardinghouse, which speaks claustrophobia. Yet the viewer’s first impression of the space is that it is surprisingly expansive – the fussy, mismatched furniture sprawling over the stage, and, in the background, a vivid outsized pattern of green ocean waves covering the walls, accompanied by the sounds of the seaside. By the end of the play, however, the walls have (literally) closed in, and the liberating promise of the sea has been replaced, appropriately, by an oppressive sense of drowning and suffocation.
Some birthday party, you might say. Well, this is no ordinary party – it’s a Pinter party, where the name of the game is paranoia shrouded in ambiguity, with occasional flashes of dark humor. At the outset, the play has the deceptively anodyne feel of a slightly off-kilter British comedy, as it follows the repetitive swells of inconsequential morning dialogue between the lady and master of the house – the slightly batty, shrill-voiced Meg (Karen McDonald, practically unrecognizable under layers of makeup and a gray wig) and her taciturn husband Petey (Terence Rigby).
But the mood changes – signaled by an ominous, though very quiet, musical motif-with the appearance of the sole boarder, Stanley (Thomas Derrah). Stanley, an unpleasant schlub who’s been at the house for over a year, has from all appearances checked out of life. Formerly a piano player, he now has no job and no prospects, and seems hardly ever to stir from the house where Meg pets and clucks over him and he abuses her verbally in return – despite occasional invitations from Meg’s bosomy neighbor Lulu (Elizabeth Laidlaw). Is Stanley hiding from something? So it would seem, given how negatively he reacts when Meg tells him that two strange men are coming to lodge at the house too, at least for a night.
It’s the arrival of these two men in suits, Goldberg (Will LeBow) and McCann (Remo Airaldi), that sets the play’s wheels in motion. They have come for Stanley, though it isn’t clear where they (or for that matter he) have come from, or that Stanley even knows either of them. When Meg tells them it’s Stanley’s birthday (though he insists it’s not), they decide to throw him a party – a party that dissolves into drunkenness, violence, sex, and blindness (on several levels), and seals Stanley’s fate in the morning.
Pinter’s play remains deliberately cryptic about what Stanley is hiding from and who or what Goldberg and McCann are supposed to represent. The mystery of their origins actually heightens their symbolic power as emissaries of the nameless, amorphous Everyentity that can reclaim any of us at any moment – whether it’s the Matrix, the mob, the asylum, the secret police, or simply the dictates of conventional society or human mortality. So universalized, LeBow and Airaldi evoke everything from Laurel and Hardy to Beckett’s Didi and Gogo to Magritte’s bowler-hatted assassins, but at the same time bring a distinctive flavor of their own. LeBow is divertingly watchable as the ultra-urbane Goldberg; Airaldi tries a little too hard to play his brittle, nerves-on-edge foil, though the effort with which words are wrenched from him contrasts nicely with the glibness of LeBow’s ready patter. This makes the scenes in which the pair interrogate Stanley all the more effective: the rain of half-absurd, half-terrifying questions and indictments they pour down on him mark the best moments of the show.
Subtracting those crisply paced inquisitions, I’m not an especially big fan of Pinterian dialogue – or the dialogic circles of absurdist drama generally. A certain intellectual self-consciousness that feels rather dated than timeless hangs about it, and it isn’t helped by the super-honed high style of the AmRep actors. Still, it’s a credit to the cast and the overall production that this Birthday Party manages to capture the disquieting atmosphere of banality and menace that Pinter’s play breathes. That conception of the modern human condition, however dated, still feels timeless today.
The Birthday Party
By Harold Pinter
American Repertory Theatre
through March 27