The Birthday Party
What I love most about a night of live theater is the car ride home. No matter what you saw, you head home talking passionately about it. The immediacy of the action in live theater forces you to think about its themes, the characters’ portrayals, the many ways a line could have been delivered, and (especially in any play written by Harold Pinter) what the hell just happened, anyway? Such were the intense discussions I engaged in after watching Brüka Theatre’s production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
The thing with Pinter, a 2005 Nobel Prize-winning playwright, is that much of the important action in his work is unseen, much of the conflict unexplained and many of the characters’ fears unstated. What you’re left with is the absurdity of day-to-day life contrasted against menace and evil—but where that evil’s coming from, or why, you really never know. The result is incredible tension and a feeling that you’re seeing something very important, though you’re not quite sure what.
Tom Plunkett directed this Brüka performance, which features Holly Natwora and Jorge Hoyos as Meg and Petey, a couple who run a seedy boarding house near the English seaside. Meg is a silly old woman who is upbeat and out of touch with reality. Petey does little but eat the food Meg puts in front of him and read the newspaper. Because of Petey’s utter impotence, Meg dotes a little too much on their only boarder, Stanley (Michael Maupin), a strange, unsociable man who has lived with them for a year and yet whose past is still a mystery.
Their comfortable, though strange, daily routine is soon disrupted: first by Stanley’s birthday, and second by the arrival of two unexpected guests, Goldberg and McCann.
Goldberg (David Richards) is a smallish, puzzling man in a suit who seems intent on torturing Stanley. McCann (Androo Allen) is a looming, lunkheaded Irish henchman whose job is to carry out Goldberg’s wishes. While we know little about these men, we dread them—and so does Stanley.
Meanwhile, Meg has gotten wind of Stanley’s birthday and plans a little party for him. The invitees include herself, Stanley, Goldberg, McCann and the local flirt, Lulu (Jamie Plunkett). The party, which feels absolutely ridiculous in light of the impending (though inexplicable) doom, quickly spirals into something that feels a lot like a car wreck: It’s so awful that you have to watch.
I’ve said it before: Holly Natwora is fantastic. Meg’s inability to face reality and her unwavering affection for Stanley potentially could make her unlovable and irritating, yet thanks to Natwora’s endearing performance, she is a delight to watch.
Richards and Allen manage to make Goldberg and McCann at once malevolent and hilarious. They play off each other like Laurel and Hardy, even when they’re about to do terrible harm. In some instances, Richards rushes too quickly through his lines. Pinter’s brilliant plays on language often get lost in Richards’ hurried delivery. Allen does a really nice job with his Irish accent, although he tends to be a bit monotonous with it.
Maupin’s portrayal of Stanley is at times hard to buy. He just doesn’t seem mysterious enough. Although when threatened by Goldberg and McCann, his terror is at once fully palpable.
In the end, you may not understand exactly what happened in The Birthday Party, and you’ll leave with a lot of unanswerable questions. But it’s the sharply drawn characters that will stick with you during, and after, that car ride home.