THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Harold Pinter began his theatrical career as an actor, and nowhere is this more evident than in his early plays. Scholars have attempted to classify them under the labels "absurdist" or "surrealist," but they're actually extended acting exercises: emotion and action, with only the barest of literary or literal detail to indicate the motive. It's the adage about the tip of the iceberg carried to its extreme. Something important seems to be happening--or has happened or will happen--but Pinter apparently sees no need to tell us what it is or who these people are. The result is a ubiquitous anxiety, irritating in its banality and unsettling in its vacillation between comedy and tragedy. Subdued paranoia never escalates into cathartic terror.
The Birthday Party is no exception. The elderly Petey and his wife, Meg, live by a seaside resort where he works as a deck-chair attendant and she rents rooms to boarders. They have just one boarder at present: Stanley, formerly a semisuccessful pianist, now a lethargic recluse, neglectful of his person, uninterested in any social activity, and resentful of any attempt to spark his interest. Not even the provocative Lulu from next door can raise a response from him. The arrival of two strangers, however, sparks a very pronounced response. Goldberg--a gentleman with at least two complete identities, one Jewish, one gentile--and his partner, the Irishman McCann, take a room in Meg's house. Upon learning that it's Stanley's birthday, they propose a party. In the course of preparations for the party and the party itself, these two confront Stanley with accusations of innumerable crimes and questions ranging from the oracular to the ridiculous: "What about the Albigensian heresy?" "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Stanley's initial unease grows to a paralyzing fear. When he finally cracks, Goldberg and McCann promise him all manner of comfort and, after warning the others not to interfere, transport him to a mysterious sanctuary.
Are Goldberg and McCann gangsters? Are they terrorists? Government agents? Is Stanley a traitor, a defector, or a criminal? If so, what was, or is, his crime? Is The Birthday Party an allegory of totalitarianism, with Goldberg and McCann representing the Nazis/McCarthyites/IRA/KGB/CIA? Is it an allegory of religious repression, with Goldberg and McCann the Inquisition? Is it an allegory of life and death? Perhaps Stanley--who is said to be "a corpse waiting to be washed"--is being given one last chance to live. (That would explain Goldberg's warning to Petey that he, too, could be taken along with Stanley, while Meg and Lulu, whose sins are of a life-affirming nature, are let off with no more than a bad scare.)
Awash in a sea of subtext, one looks to the director for some anchoring line. What this production's director, Scott Stuart, provides is a program note: "The Birthday Party depicts violence. . . . Violence comes to life in the ritual of theatre, which can be both a reflection and embodiment of social violence." Stuart finds that the most profound tension and comedy spring from "the frightening chaos of senseless social violence in the wake of seemingly purposeful religious sacrifice." This thesis is evident enough in the play's pecking order: McCann's physical and Goldberg's psychological intimidation trickle down in the form of Stanley's aggression against Meg and Lulu. It also explains the ecclesiastical orientation of Goldberg and McCann's attacks. But Stuart's road map still fails to tell us where this road lies. The question of the life these people have, outside of what we see of them, remains unanswered.
To be fair, Stuart is no more to blame than any other director who attempts Pinter--after all, if the playwright had wanted us to know all the answers, he would have given them to us outright. Faced with all this ambiguity, directors tend to play the script as naturalistically as possible. Inspired, perhaps, by the toy drum presented to Stanley as a birthday present, Stuart moves his production along at a steady, unflagging tempo--it's like a military march that may accelerate to double time occasionally but never loses its original signature. Because this production allows us no more time to reflect on our confusion than it allows the characters to reflect on theirs, the action pulls us along despite ourselves. Any confusion is compounded by the brilliantly bizarre set, by Tom Burke and Ruth Gilmore, with its exaggerated colors, odd proportions, and multiplicity of vanishing points. Eye-grabbing lines run in all directions; there's even an actor in a striped suit who stands taller than the upstage door.
In the midst of this unbalanced universe, Stuart's well-rehearsed cast play out their tragic inevitabilities with a restrained deliberation, almost sadistic in its leisureliness. Jake Jacobson and Jennifer Halliday make Petey and Meg the perfect picture of a couple who have long since said everything they have to say to each other and now talk only to fill up the time. Richard Cotovsky, an actor usually associated with comedy, delivers a concentrated performance as the sad sack Stanley, whose ill-tempered lassitude cannot protect him from retribution for whatever he may have committed in the past. As the agents of that retribution, John Alcott and Robb Michael radiate menace, playing out their good-cop/bad-cop games with a disciplined ruthlessness as precise as the snap of a whip. Finally, as the flirtatious Lulu, Shaila Zellman goes beyond the dumb-and-sexy cliches to lend her character a childlike wistfulness.
Indeed, the most noticeable characteristic of Stuart's production is the absence of a palpable evil. Whatever cruelty or foolishness the characters may perpetrate, however severe or irresponsible the measures they take, they remain somehow innocent of personal malice. Whether this is in keeping with the playwright's intentions is arguable--as is any statement about the playwright's intentions. But Stuart's decision in this matter humanizes personalities that could easily have degenerated into melodramatic stereotypes, and thereby facilitates audience empathy. We may not be sure where we are, where we were, or where we're going, but Mary-Arrchie's The Birthday Party is nonetheless an interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking journey.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.