Creeped out one minute, laughing out loud the next — that's the contrasting joy of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, now in a wonderfully bright and gloomy production at American Conservatory Theater.
Menace has always been a Pinter strong suit, but the delightful surprise about this Party is how funny it can be. Carey Perloff, a Pinter devotee, is in the director's chair one last time before leaving her role as artistic director at the end of the season. For this production, she has gathered a superb cast that is equally at home in the rollicking domestic comedy of the play and its much darker underpinnings.
Two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey (Hurlyburly, Steaming) provides the two-and-a-half-hour play's first spark as Meg, a dithering housewife who keeps wanting to know if her husband Petey's cornflakes are nice. Petey (a droll Dan Hiatt, whose placid surface will crack to reveal something more substantial) keeps insisting they're very nice, and it seems the play will be a funny but bizarre comedy of lower-class manners.
But with the arrival of Meg and Petey's sole tenant in their so-called boarding house, the tone of the play shifts into something more sinister. Stanley (a tense and surprising Firdous Bamji) is a grown man acting like a sullen teen. He's essentially a shut-in, and he lets Meg mother him in the creepiest way — whether she wants him to be her child or her lover is never made clear.
There's big news afoot in the beachside boarding house (the set by Nina Ball presents an ordinary house that looks like it's in the process of blowing apart). It's Stanley's birthday (not really — Meg has the day wrong) and two additional boarders — the first in years — are set to arrive any minute.
The guests, the hulking Irish McCann (Marco Barricelli) and the nattily dressed Goldberg (Scott Wentworth), are clearly not what they seem. We never know much about them except that they're not tourists enjoying the British seaside and they're definitely not the kind of guys you want to come knocking on your door, let alone attend your birthday party. Though Barricelli and Wentworth have their humorous moments, they bring mystery and danger to their every interaction, whether it's with the increasingly agitated Stanley or Meg's ready-to-party friend Lulu (Julie Adamo).
Ivey's Meg lights up every scene she's in. She's odd and lovable and hard to pin down. When she isn't around, the men traffic in fear and intimidation, or, in Petey's case, an emerging sense of decency in the face of terror tactics. McCann and Goldberg have an interrogation scene that is such a masterful piece of writing and performance you wish the actors could immediately do it again.
The play's sense of imminent threat gives it (sadly) a timeless feeling. Ball's set and Candice Donnelly's prosaic costumes feel neither current nor specifically dated. This is a world of contrasts, and Perloff's finely tuned production makes the most of this. There's a feeling of the past built into the walls of the boarding house (heightened by Robert Hand's stark lighting design), and yet everything feels of the moment, a big laugh will be followed by a chill, and a goofy interplay will suddenly turn threatening and deeply serious.
While Pinter never fully answers our questions about what's going on or who some of these people are, we don't need answers. There's theatrical joy in the not knowing and in the enigmatic push and pull of seen and unseen connections. This compelling Birthday Party manages to be enjoyable and surprising the same way good parties can be, but thanks to Pinter, the celebration can also be absolutely terrifying.
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