Pinter’s The Birthday Party a must see play by A.C.T.

Ditzy Meg (Judith Ivey) teases Stanley (Firdous Bamji) with a feather duster in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party” at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The Birthday Party: Drama by Harold Pinter. Directed by Cary Perloff.  American Conservatory Theater (ACT), 415 Geary St., San Francisco, CA. (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

Plays through February 4, 2018

Pinter’s The Birthday Party a must see play by A.C.T. Rating: ★★★★★

Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker were contemporaries and neophyte playwrights in the late 1950s. The term “kitchen sink drama” was a Wesker trademark and his plays (The Kitchen, Chicken Soup with Barley and Roots) were the hits of that era while Pinter’s play The Birthday Party was critically denounced by all but one theatre reviewer. Now, 60 years after that unsuccessful opening there is a revival of The Birthday Party in London that opened a night after A.C.T.’s brilliant production of that play being given a tight nerve wrenching production under the able direction of Carey Perloff.  It has all of Pinter’s trademarks of ambiguity, mystery, menace and violence with silences written into the script.

The opening scene is classic “kitchen sink” drama with the set depicting a seedy seaside boarding house (Nina Ball) where ditzy Meg (Judith Ivey) is serving her taciturn beach chair attendant husband Petey (Dan Hiatt) a ritual breakfast of corn flakes and tea. The questions she asks are repetitive and banal not requiring answers. Living in the boarding house is Stanley (Firdous Bamji) a strange reclusive boarder who may or may not have been former concert pianist. Meg’s interest in Stanley seems more than ambivalent as she flirtatiously teases the description of being “succulent” from him and basks in the illusion.  A young slatternly Lulu (Julie Adamo) lives next door and has more than a passing interest in Stanley.

Soon to enter into this innocuous household are two mysterious men. The suave impeccably dressed Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) and the ominous McCann (Marco Barricelli) seeking rooms.  For unexplained reasons they are actually stalking the reclusive Stanley: “Why did you leave the organization?” We never learn what “the organization” is but no one voluntarily leaves it. There is the unspoken suggestion it has political connotation and is a derogatory reference to government thus making it cogent in our time or any historical era.  

Meg announces a birthday party for Stanley even though it really (probably) is not his birthday. It is a birthday party fit for an insane asylum! Goldberg/McCann provide more than ample liquor, Meg has purchased a toy drum for Stanley so that he “can restart” his musical career. With most plays ‘in vino veritas’ but with Pinter it is ‘in vino violence’.” The seething unspoken menace of McCann explodes with lightening ferocity against the hapless Stanley.

The construction of the play is classic Aristotelian with the first act setting up the premise and the second act ending with a climax requiring a denouement.  Pinter is masterful in setting up act two that begins with a game of Blindman’s Bluff leading to a blacked out stage with periods of illumination from a flashlight depicting shattering violence. Alcohol takes its effect with devastating consequences.

The acting is superb with Perloff extracting the best from the entire cast. Scott Wentworth has the unenviable task Pinter has assigned to Goldberg who is given long discursive/historical monologs which appear to define character but actually are more mysterious than illuminating.  It is one of Pinter’s trademarks as the words do not reflect the true hidden reality of the character delivering the lines. The non-responses to questions cast another layer of ambiguity.

Judith Ivey nails the character of Meg with her body language, speech patterns, housewife demeanor and as the deluded “succulent” morsel for Stanley. You can feel the fear within Firdous Bamji’s portrayal of the stalked Stanley and as Lulu says, “Stanley you stink!” and you believe her. Baricella’s  MacCann is a volcano waiting to erupt. The menace and swift violence is heart stopping. His compulsive habit of tearing newspapers into identical strips shocks without a single word being uttered. Julie Adamo in a small but pivotal role creates a reality of her sexuality but the touches of unexpected humor take a back seat to her treatment by Goldberg that will rankle both sexes.

I leave the best for last. Dan Hiatt as Petey has the fewest lines yet creates the perfect foil for Ivey. As Petey he enters the set without words, takes his seat at the table, opens his newspaper, raises his eyebrows, allows his eyes to dart about with an imperceptible head movement expressing more than words can convey. In this dysfunctional setting he is the glue that brings a semblance of sanity and as much of a sense closure that Pinter will allow.

CAST: Petey, Dan Hiatt; Meg, Judith Ivey; Stanley, Firdous Bamji, Lulu, Julie Adamo; McCann, Marco Barricelli; Goldberg, Scott Wentworth.

Creative Team: Scenic Designer, Nina Ball; Costume Designer, Candice Donnelly; Lighting Designer, Robert Hand; Sound Designer, Darron L West.

Running time is tense two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission and a blackout between act 2 and act 3. A must see production.

Kedar K Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldim2.com.

Meg (Judith Ivey), Goldberg (Scott Wentworth, center) and Petey (Dan Hiatt) discusses the previous evening, in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through Sunday February 4.

 

Ditzy Meg (Judith Ivey) teases Stanley (Firdous Bamji) with a feather duster in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party” at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne.