The Mysteries of Harold Pinter's 'Birthday Party' Change Over Time

Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, receiving a slick and professional production at the American Conservatory Theater under Carey Perloff’s direction through Feb. 4, is a curious cultural artifact. Premiering at the Cambridge Arts Theater in 1958, the play snaked its way to a London opening that turned into one of those disastrous cause célèbres that artists can only dream of.

Closing after eight performances to dismissive reviews, the play’s reputation was buoyed and bolstered by Harold Hobson’s after-closing take in The Sunday Times, proclaiming that Pinter “possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.” By 1960, The Birthday Party was broadcast on British television to great acclaim, and Pinter was well on his way to major playwright status and a Stockholm christening.

Pinter was the revolution that mid-century audiences wanted — and for almost 60 years he, along with Samuel Beckett, has stood for an ongoing theatrical revolt against conventional meaning. The Birthday Party is a wonderful, early career case for how simple and allusive his plays can be.

Stanley Webber (played by Firdous Bamji), a former pianist who is wasting away his days at a decaying, seaside boarding house, suddenly finds himself subject to an investigation by a couple of maybe-gangsters -- McCann and Goldberg (Marco Barricelli and Scott Wentworth). And to top it off, they and his elderly landlady Meg (Judith Ivey), who's more than a little smitten with Stanley, are intent on throwing him an unwanted birthday party.

The play comes to a rather violent conclusion, though not a particularly enlightening one. We never know what’s motivating these characters, though they all seem terrified of unknown forces, even the villains. And so we might ask in these tense times, where many of us dream of political, aesthetic, and cultural change, just what the value is of Pinter’s assault on sense.

As strangely as the play ends, its beginning is rooted in a rather mundane realism. You can feel the stench of the everyday in the boarding house of Meg and her husband Petey (Dan Hiatt); cornflakes, newspapers, moldy tea, fried bread. It’s a stultifying scene and one any sensible person would try to escape.

Here is the British drawing-room farce gone to seed, the implosion of the delicate, domestic dramas of Terrance Rattigan, and the advent of mysteries that Agatha Christie (whose Mousetrap was already up and running in 1958, and raking in the dough) could never solve. Pinter has his eye on the cosmic and the unanswerable, but he starts in the dirt, and that’s always promising.

Perloff’s production trades in the initial grime for a dithering cuteness. Nina Ball’s set is a little too clean and unworn for what Pinter’s after, and Judith Ivey’s Meg too much of a winning performance. She’s absolutely expert in her delivery, but she misses what the script calls for: Meg's disgusting personification of her environment, a seedy slattern on the make who can’t keep her hands off her one boarder. There’s a nasty edge to Pinter’s work that the ACT production dulls at the onset. Why produce The Birthday Party if you aren’t going to wallow with the pigs?

And yet there are pleasures to be had with both play and production: longtime ACT stalwart Marco Barricelli and a dandy Scott Wentworth make for a terrific McCann and Goldberg, especially in the play’s rousing second act that ends in the birthday party Stanley wishes to avoid.

Watch the way Barricelli sings McCann’s Irish love song, or methodically tears a newspaper to pieces, or tries to think. The actions (both of character and actor) are so specific and self-contained that they possess a sense of reason and logic. We don't worry about what we don't understand -- like Meg and Petey's cheap decor, we simply accept the overwhelming reality before us.

One can get lost in the joy that Wentworth’s Goldberg takes in playing both psychological and actual games. He practically waltzes through a round of Blind Man’s Bluff, while simultaneously torturing Stanley and seducing a young woman. His eyes are a riot of childish opportunities, as if the holiday spirit had taken a shine to evil. Whatever his motives, he’s dazzlingly alive, and there’s nothing meaningless about that.

Faced with precise action and an abundance of detail, we can accept a world filled with unexplained mysteries. It’s when that loss of sense becomes an idea, a philosophical stance, or worse, an aesthetic style that we should revolt and ask real questions. It’s not surprising that McCann and Goldberg reduce Stanley to a grunting, spastic mute; the problem is that the play rushes and forces its way to that conclusion.

By the third act, Pinter rejects the richness and precision of the first two, and indulges in a surface absurdity that actively eschews sense. Whatever was motivating these characters (and I'm not saying we need to know) is lost to a series of arbitrary and random stabs at high style absurdist drivel. The whole thing collapses far before Stanley does.

A less reverential production, such as The Wooster Group’s take on Pinter’s The Room, might have found a more potent third-act solution. Instead, what we get here are the limits of illogic and the remains of a 60-year revolution. It's a fine enough presentation as the status quo goes, but you just feel there's so much more to be had — in the world, and in Pinter.

The Birthday Party runs through Sunday, Feb. 4 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, see here.