The Birthday Party. Written by Harold Pinter. Directed by Carey Perloff. A.C.T., Geary Street, San Francisco, CA, 94102.
Could there be a more perfect way for Carey Perloff to bow out as A.C.T.s Artistic Director than with Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party? She worked with Pinter way back in 1989 as the CSC Repertory Theatre and lovingly presents this sparkling acting tour de force as her swan song. There’s a birthday party set in a rundown seaside boarding house and in the marvelous first act, we meet the hapless cast of typical Pinteresque characters. Meg and Petey Boles, the proprietors, and their one boarder Stanley Webber. Not all is what it seems in a Pinter play; ambiguities abound, time and space is confused and there’s dark symbolism at play. The writing is sharp and often very funny in the hands of a stellar cast featuring two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey and Veteran Bay Area actor Dan Hiatt as the married couple.
Meg meddles in everyone’s affairs, including Stanley, who details are fuzzy. He says he’s a concert pianist, or maybe gave just a concert once. Maybe he was married, maybe not. He says it’s not even his birthday. Firdous Bamji is fantastic as the disheveled, mysterious Stanley, arrogant and frustrated by his condition. He may symbolize the beleaguered everyman opposing the forces of control. You have to accept what’s unfolding onstage and accept the absurdism as fact. The arrival of two menacing strangers, McCann and Goldberg, turn the proceedings into a nightmare in a dark and foreboding second act.
After a light but confusing first act, Pinter pours it on in the second. Meg seems particularly oblivious to the proceedings; prattling on like a ditzy Edith Bunker (indeed Jean Stapleton played Meg in Perloff’s 1989 production). Marco Barricelli, plays McCann, perhaps a mob enforcer, eliciting impending dread. Goldberg, the boss, played with chilling force by Scott Wentworth, commands much of the second act. He too, is an ambiguous character, called Nat, Simey or Benny. It seems as though these two goons know Stanley and may or may not want to do bodily harm, kidnap or brainwash him.
During the birthday party, Stanley attempts to rape Lulu, the town floozy, but she ends up with Goldberg. A drunken Meg is the belle of the ball, while her oblivious husband just wants his Corn Flakes. Perloff knows this material inside out and mines the ensemble to perfection. There’s equal parts humor, danger and intrigue to keep the audience guessing.
What it all means? You’ll need a college course on Pinter to divine. For us neophytes expecting more exposition, it’s a lovely piece of brilliantly written acting performances.
Performances run through February 4, 2018 act-sf.org 415.749.2228