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|A CurtainUp Review
The Birthday Party
by Laura Hitchcock
The Matrix Theatre celebrates Harold Pinter's 70th birthday by presenting his first full-length play, The Birthday Party. We're introduced to a 28-year-old playwright who saw things in the 1950s that the rest of us only suffered. What distinguishes Pinter from generations of imitators is that he can write a play without a plot that is always spine-tingling, endlessly fascinating, and absolutely essential. The Birthday Party is richly and carefully layered with zeitgeist, anxiety, fear, topicality - and that becomes the motivation and the plot. It's about us, that year, the gathering clouds of a bewildered society.
The play takes place in a dowdy seaside boarding house, occupied by an elderly couple, Petey and his wife Meg, and their boarder, a young irascible man called Stanley. Meg is a simple soul who dotes on Stanley and he is not nice to her. He's an unkempt unlikable guy and we're not surprised when two ominous thugs, Goldberg and McCann, show up to get him. That's the set-up and the play-out is a collage of questions about the characters, their relationships, motives, desires, betrayals.
Meg's cloying affection for Stanley wavers between flirtatiousness and mothering. The accusations of the thugs as they interrogate Stanley in alternate rapid-fire bursts range from implications that he's Mafia, IRA, a wife murderer, to You're What's Left, perhaps the dregs of a decadent society. Any motive will do but their rage is very focused.
When they join Meg in putting on a birthday party for Stanley, there's an echo of Enid Bagnold's line about an event having fragments of forgotten ritual. There are the usual party rituals of too many drinks, a pretty girl as a subject for a pass, party hats that sit on the men's humorless heads like a bad joke. The sexual tension culminates in a game of blind man's buff that's severed by an attempted murder.
The fears, rage and tensions between men and women, whether mother-child or girl-boy, and the guy thing in which Stanley pays for not being a team player are threads that highlight a threatening uncertain world in which Getcha!'s the name of the game, nobody's trustworthy, yesterday's structure ravels from within. And all the time the pace, the words, pierce and gleam without letup, holding up the whole black comedy like the one sure thing, the brilliance and perception you can count on.
The Matrix always double casts its productions. In the performance viewed, Petey was impeccably played by Robert Symonds (who did the play in the U. S. premiere at San Francisco's Actor's Workshop and later at Lincoln Center). In a relationship conducted mainly in monosyllables while reading the newspaper, Symonds projects the kindness and serenity that makes Petey and Meg's marriage work. We're not surprised when this Petey shows perception, integrity and all the strength he can against the thugs. Meg gives Angela Paton a chance to display her formidable comedic gifts, as well as the delicious femininity that makes Petey a happy husband. This Meg is dippy and maddening, as written, but in Paton's polished paws she's so much fun to be around.
In Petey's inability to rescue Stanley and Meg's inability to see his danger, Pinter harshly sketches a family dynamic that has the blind uselessness and futility of parental love. Goldberg, the suave head thug, is played with dapper oiliness by Lawrence Pressman, seconded by Morlan Higgins as the dour McCann, a defrocked priest with the rigidity, implacability and squeamishness inherent in the role. Jay Karnes' Stanley stands in for the audience as a character who is frightened, frightening, cold, possibly guilty and ultimately a victim. Karnes doesn't miss a beat. As Lulu, lithe, lovely Rachel Robinson portrays a very young girl of heightened libido, demonstrating remarkable range compared to her Laura in last year's The Glass Menagerie at The Pasadena Playhouse.
In a play that would be easy to play broadly or heavily, Andrew J. Robinson directs with a light intuitive touch that brings out all the nuances without losing the despairing laughter that rims Pinter's universe. Victoria Profitt designed a set that reinforces Petey and Meg's shabby sense of home, complemented by J. Kent Inasy's excellent lighting design.