THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
by Harold Pinter
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
604.280.3311 or www.ticketmaster.ca
Blackbird Theatre came into being last year to fill a gap in the local theatre scene by performing the classics. By the end of next season they will have done plays from 400 BC to the 1860s. Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, from 1958, in many ways feels as distant in time as the rest of Blackbird’s repertory.
Along with Beckett, Pinter was the master of absurd theatre in the 1950s and ‘60s. Here and in other plays like The Dumbwaiter, The Caretaker and The Homecoming, his characters engage in bizarre conversations that seem to be about something else, refuse to reveal their motives, use words and ominous silences like weapons (the famous “Pinter pause”), and intimidate each other for reasons that remain obscure. Combining accents and habits of the English lower-middle classes with an omnipresent threat of violence, these Pinteresque comedies of manners have been aptly dubbed “comedies of menace.”
The Birthday Party is set in a tattered seaside rooming house run by Petey (Duncan Fraser) and Meg (Lee Van Paasen). Their breakfast-table conversations go like this. Meg: Here are your corn flakes. Are they nice? Petey: Very nice. Addled old Meg shamelessly, flirtatiously mothers their only boarder, broody ex-pianist Stanley (Anthony Ingram), who refuses to leave the house. When Stanley’s girlfriend Lulu (Samantha Madely) invites him to come out and get a little air, he answers: “Air? I don’t know about that.”
Two ominous strangers arrive, Goldberg (William Samples) and McCann (Michael Ryan). Meg announces that it’s Stanley’s birthday. Stanley denies it but Goldberg and McCann organize a party where they steal his glasses, viciously interrogate him (“You’re a fake! Why did you betray us? You’re dead”), and play party games with the toy drum Meg has bought him as a present.
What’s it all about, Alfie? Goldberg is Jewish, McCann Irish, Stanley homeless, Meg childless. It may be about alienation, belonging, the threat of fascism. Or not. With Pinter it’s mostly about the quality of the experience, not the meaning.
Co-directed by John Wright and Pinter’s old friend Henry Woolf, and solidly acted, this production conveys Pinter’s flavour and suggests why the play might have felt revolutionary in 1958. But it’s not his best work, and after half a century it feels like a period piece, overly familiar and formulaic—obscurantism as a kind of game. Only in snatches do we see the weirdly funny, disturbingly enigmatic, signature Pinter.
Fraser and Van Paasen, who wears what looks like a surgically implanted grin, perfectly capture the profound banality of Meg and Petey’s life. And Samples is fabulous as the voluble, creepy Goldberg, the monstrous puppet master and, surprisingly, central character in this production, who makes everyone dance to his strange Pinteresque tune.