Life Questions

Despite a directorial misstep, 'The Birthday Party' is a successful, thought-provoking event

Godot has arrived, and it's worse than we thought. Samuel Beckett's long wait in existential limbo comes to an end in Harold Pinter's 1957 The Birthday Party.

Stanley Webber, some sort of pianist if you believe him, has been holed up for a year as the solitary guest at a seaside boarding house run by a woman named Meg, who is inane, repetitive, overbearingly motherly and flirtatious. Perhaps she and Stanley have had an affair, or perhaps they will soon begin one. This is unclear. So is everything having to do with Stanley's identity. He begins the play lucidly but already crushed--he can't even be bothered to get out of his pajamas--and anytime he speaks about his past, he is clearly lying about it, although you get the feeling that he is beginning to believe his own lies. The characters we meet here have no real background, and what they do reveal is unreliable.

One day, something catches up with Stanley. God? His past? The Establishment? This, too, is unclear. All we know is that two men, the expansive Goldberg and his tightly coiled assistant, McCann, arrive at the residence and proceed to either deprogram, reprogram or simply humiliate into submission our elusive hero. And they do this through the ritual of a birthday party for Stanley, who protests that it isn't really his birthday.

The Birthday Party, one of Pinter's first and best plays, is the latest fare at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, and it's not for people who prefer a script with every T neatly crossed, the wet ink carefully blotted, the whole sheaf properly filed away by subject matter. Like certain yeshiva teachers, Pinter is far less interested in giving us answers than in teaching us how to ask questions.

There are the literalist questions, of course: Who or what has Stanley betrayed, and why have Goldberg and McCann been sent to bring him back? Has Stanley fled one sort of living hell only to fall into another, ruled by Meg's obsessive control? Yet isn't he fully capable of manipulating half-mad Meg? In the end, though, Stanley's resistance to conformity proves futile, although at great cost to his oppressors, and this is the point at which Pinter goads us into asking broader questions about life and human nature.

The Birthday Party exudes a particularly 1950s English sort of bleakness, in which dread of an unknown but clearly malevolent force underlies an otherwise dull middle-class life. Pinter left the identity of Goldberg and McCann's "organization" unspecified; our first inclination today would be to read them as sinister government men in black, although Pinter apparently had religious establishments in mind. Here, director Howard Allen leaves no doubt: He has David Greenwood and C.J. Higgins play Goldberg and McCann as American Mafiosi.

While making the story more accessible to some audience members, this decision, I think, lessens the play's power. Allen and his actors give us a brisk, rather lightweight production; it's played as an absurdist comedy, not an existential thriller. Even the set is bright, sunny and a little goofy with its fishnet decor, not at all oppressive. This is by no means a misreading of Pinter, who leaves The Birthday Party open to all sorts of interpretations, but it's not the closest, deepest reading possible.

Still, this production succeeds handily where many others come to grief. As Meg, Cynthia Jeffery makes the Pinteresque repetitions, hesitations and non-sequiturs sound entirely natural, and, miraculously, the opening breakfast-table scene between Meg and her husband, Petey (the steady Michael Sultzbach), never drags. On opening night, the rhythm momentarily went slack in a couple of later scenes, but the actors immediately recovered. Particularly good were Higgins and Greenwood's rapid-fire verbal assaults on Stanley (if only Higgins projected better); these scenes are what taught David Mamet how to write.

Jonathan Northover is quite a complex Stanley, malicious and manipulative in his own flirtatious sparring with Meg, but also frightened and vulnerable. He has comparatively little to do in the play's second half, other than allow sullenness to sag into catatonia, but Northover does this well. Nicole Stein is aptly teasing as a desired and desiring neighbor. Nell Summers' costumes fit each character nicely, even Meg's flouncy party dress, which is a little silly without being absolutely ridiculous or demeaning. It's nice to see Meg taken fairly seriously by actress, director and costumer alike.

Still, this Birthday Party would have benefited from being both more vicious and more vague. Nevertheless, the production ably does what every Pinter show should: leave the audience in the dark, but handing them enough materials to spark their own illumination.