Anyone with a taste for the unusual, love of the absurd or appetite for the bizarre should whistle their way post haste to Buffalo and the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s top-notch production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
Although the three-act play was written over four decades ago and is set in a seaside town in 1958, its insights into humanity’s dark side, gamely tempered with bits of humour—from one-liners to parlour diversions—make it a universal study of our oh-so-human nature.
Much of the action could be described as “we’re led to believe.” Scott Behrend’s easily functional (the cutaway, hung windows add dimension to the main floor of the seaside house without blocking a single view) and trinket-detailed set appears to be a boarding house, yet has only had a single “visitor” during the past year. That would be Stanley (Todd Benzin, whose finest moments come as he wordlessly drinks himself into a stupour during the unwanted celebration of his Natale day and the following morning when, as if his tongue had been severed, can only respond with grunts and growls to the conversation). We learn the apparent boarder is a pianist at the pier, but who has only given one concert. An upcoming world tour from Berlin to Lower Edmonton (London) is in the works, but without an instrument to keep the fingers nimble, its launch seems doubtful.
Stanley’s keeper is Meg (Pinter has called for “a woman in her sixties”; Josephine Hogan sails through the dialogues with ease but needs another decade or so to visually support the generational distance imagined by the playwright). From the deliciously vague lines of waking him up every morning with a cup of tea, to the tussles of his hair and pining looks, it seems clear that the dutiful lady of the house has first-hand knowledge of the terrain beneath the unemployed musician’s flannelette pyjamas.
Petey (Gerry Maher understates effectively, the ideal Fred to Meg’s Ethel) eats cornflakes, drinks tea, never complains about sour milk and conveniently disappears for a previously arranged chess match that coincides with the impromptu party.
The sudden get together was insisted upon by the equally unexpected appearance of Goldberg (Vincent O’Neill) and McCann (Guy Wagner) into the previously sedate lives of the doting couple and their charge. But who are these city-dressed interlopers? IRA hit men tracking down a lost soul? Producers in search of a new act? Petty thieves hoping to stay the night then slip away early with the silver? Nobody knows—including Pinter.
With their arrival, the storyline is largely the responsibility of the audience. It’s fill in the blanks Kafka style. The never-to-be-clarified narrative presents a huge challenge for director Greg Natale and his talented charges—most of which is satisfactorily overcome.
To joke or not to joke—that is the dilemma for much of the characters’ interaction. As Stanley finally appears for his breakfast the “fried bread” insider’s info gag set up by Petey fell flat on the crowd. Soon after (with her husband off to supervise deck chairs for the tourists), Meg’s luscious “Ode to succulent” scores an early hit but can’t find the perfect thrust and parry or subtext of the ensuing banter to move the slight chuckle to a sexually-charged (if incongruous) guffaw. Equally difficult is the tenor and weight of Meg’s declamation “This house is on the list.”—presumably the local hostelry. Extra emphasis on each of the last four words can produce a completely different meaning; tossing it off robs character and point of view of an all-too-rare clue as to Natale’s take on the murky circumstances.
The visual yuks fare better. Veteran O’Neill magnificently snookers his friend/accomplice/henchman (take your pick!) into a lyre-backed chair with near-vaudevillian panache. Unfortunately, and the mirror image of Hogan’s “look,” Wagner can’t pass for a “man of thirty,” adding unintentional confusion to an already confused plot.
Still, the “Blind Man’s Buff” sequence is a brilliant bit of staging where the ensemble comes together in a truly terrific manner, working through the attempted strangulation, possible murder and a broken toy drum with menacing authority. Catalytic to this marvellous scene is the ever-tempting Lulu (Leah Russo)—equally at home flirting with any generation.
Yet when the post-bash dust settles the following morning, the equally intoxicating notion that if Lulu and Goldberg spent the night together and it was McCann who’d usurped Meg’s place and brought Stanley his tea is never explored, which could have added another tantalizing layer to this fantastical play.
Nothing for it but to invite yourself to this party, which, clearly, marches to the beat of a different drummer. JWR