Contemporary Western theater is informed by discomfort. Architects have formed a near-biblical series of begats, with one playwright influencing the next. Martin McDonagh was influenced by Sam Shepard and David Mamet; McDonagh's The Pillowman was just extended at the Berkeley Rep and the Shotgun Players have Mamet's The Cryptogram coming up in May. Mamet was in turn influenced by Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party is now up at the Aurora. And there probably wouldn't have been Pinter had there not first been Beckett, who was just given a lovely homage, in the Rep's all wear bowlers.
The point being that all of these men, when their work first surfaced, pissed people off. Audiences yelled at the stage or walked out, critics wrote scathing reviews, shows closed prematurely (the first run of The Birthday Party, in 1958, lasted a miserable four days.) Yet in each case something about the work was vital and resonant enough that eventually it found an audience; people discovered that these playwrights were speaking to their fears, whether of violence, obsolescence, social disapproval, or political oppression.
These playwrights also share the ability to create a sense of menace while maintaining a biting wit. Sometimes the menace is blatant, as with McDonagh, whose characters talk openly about sinking various blunt objects into each other; and sometimes it is cloaked, as with Pinter, who once used the phrase "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet" to describe the power struggles that subtly inform his plays. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, Swedish Academy Chairman Horace Engdahl neatly described Pinter as a writer "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms."
Pinter saw that precipice and that oppression early on. He wasn't yet thirty, an actor touring the British provinces, when he crashed for a night in a shabby rooming-house with a flirtatious landlady and her mild-mannered husband. Pinter was so struck by the dead-endedness of the situation that he wrote The Birthday Party about a burnt-out man living in a rented room who is visited by two menacing fellows while the homeowners blithely ignore what's going on.
Audiences and critics couldn't stand it. It had too much ambiguity for the late fifties it wasn't clear who the interlopers were, what they wanted, or what happened at the end. The play probably would have sunk into obscurity if critic Harold Hobson hadn't sprung to its defense.
It's a good thing Hobson fought for The Birthday Party, because fifty years later it's spot-on, addressing as it does the state of heightened anxiety in which we find ourselves. The Tom Ross-directed production at the Aurora shimmers with menace that all the cabbage-rose wallpaper and porcelain kitties of Richard Olmstead's set design can't conceal. The play opens with Meg serving breakfast to her husband and ends just before lunch the next day. In the interim, there's an interrogation, a nightmarish party, some necking, wanton destruction of a musical instrument, and a mysterious "Organization" that might or might not be extralegal, or even real.
There's also James Carpenter as the disagreeable and unkempt Stanley, the rattiest character this usually elegant actor has played in recent memory, and Michael Ray Wisely, who systematically shreds a newspaper in what feels like a nod to Beckett. Wisely does a nice job of conveying McCann's nervousness without resorting to nervous gestures or unnecessary business. McCann answers, sort of, to the suave yet volatile Goldberg, played in suitably reptilian fashion by Julian López-Morillas. Some theater scholars find it interesting that the two men menacing the trembling English Stanley are an Irishman and a Jew Wisely and López-Morillas play McCann and Goldberg accordingly, a little exaggerated, and the two scenes where they're alone with their quarry are hysterical, if scary.
The tangy Emily Jordan, so wonderful as Richard the Third a couple of summers back, now plays an exceptionally girly girl who gets more syllables of seduction into the word "cheese" than it should be able to contain. Phoebe Moyer's Meg potters about, unaware of what's going on. Pinter took this to an extreme when he rendered Meg, in the final act, unable to remember the details of the party the night before. Moyer nails Meg's deliberate obtuseness in the last bit of dialogue when she tells Petey (a meditative Chris Ayles) that she was the belle of the ball at the party, "everyone thought so." Certain bits of Ross' blocking are fanciful yet focused, such as Stanley moving around the table chair by chair in his panic, or the way the visitors keep trapping him in a cleanly triangular formation.
Fifty years ago, people couldn't hack The Birthday Party. Now its ambiguity and the questions it raises are a major part of its charm, especially in this well-tuned version.
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