Posts Tagged ‘the birthday party’

The Birthday Party
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Suki Peters
Albion Theatre
March 10, 2023

Teresa Doggett, Ted Drury, Nick Freed
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

The latest production from Albion Theatre is a well-known classic of British theatre. The Birthday Party, by celebrated playwright Harold Pinter, is intriguing, memorable, challenging, and deliberately unsettling and disturbing. At Albion, director Suki Peters has staged a thoughtful, impeccably cast production that speaks to its own time as well our own, and is sure to get audiences thinking. 

The play is often mentioned as a prime example of the mid-20th Century Theatre of the Absurd genre, as well as being labeled a “Comedy of Menace”. Both of these descriptors are apt, in that there is a message here, but it’s often not a strictly “coherent” one, and fear, uncertainty, and menace are major features in the play, setting a sort of questioning tone and not providing much in the way of answers. The way it’s staged at Albion focuses much on the building tension and sense of nebulous dread, as well as the mannerisms and particularities of the characters, who are at once unique individuals and recognizable “types”. 

The setup is fairly simple, as older English couple Petey (Robert Ashton) and Meg (Teresa Doggett) have breakfast together in their simple house in a small seaside town. They engage  in a rote, mostly empty discussion of the meal, the day, and their boarder Stanley (Ted Drury), an out-of work pianist who lives out his purposeless days bickering, and occasionally flirting, with Meg, and avoiding people in the outside world. It also may or may not be his birthday, and Meg prepares to celebrate, as neighbor Lulu (Summer Baer) delivers an odd present, and Stanley appears to be unsettled by the news that two men from out of town have asked Petey for a room for the night, because the place may or may not be a boarding house. Soon, the strangers arrive, and they appear to be on a mission involving Stanley, who seems to recognize Goldberg (Chuck Winning), who appears to be in charge, and clearly has unpleasant plans for Stanley, even though we’re never told exactly what those plans are, or what Stanley has done to precipitate the interrogation and menacing that ensues. Goldberg is accompanied a stoic, matter-of-fact Irish assistant, McCann (Nick Freed), and the two proceed to terrorize Stanley while acceding to Meg’s wish to celebrate his “birthday”, insisting on attending the party, which is eventful, to say the least, and not a little disturbing.

Although the “plot”, for what it is, is fairly basic, it’s the characterization and the tone that make this show, with moments of comedy–sometimes broad, sometimes cynical–are interspersed with a more threatening atmosphere. The players here are all well-chosen, and although the accents are mixed bag–ranging from essentially flawless (Ashton and Doggett, who are both originally from the UK, and Freed, who sounds authentically Irish), to “good enough” (Drury and Baer), to “barely there” (Winning)–the characterizations are consistent and excellent. Drury makes a credible, sullen Stanley, adding to the tension and mood with his body language as well as his speaking moments, and he plays especially well in scenes with the superb Doggett as the well-meaning and over-intrusive Meg. Doggett’s comic timing is especially strong, as is Winning’s. Winning and Freed make a suitably threatening pair, and Freed manages to bring layers of depth to his fairly simply presented character. Ashton and Baer are also memorable, making the most of their fairly limited stage time. It’s a strong, cohesive ensemble, handling the overall tone and pacing well. 

The technical aspects of the production are also excellent. The simple unit set by Brad Slavik, along with the costumes by Tracey Newcomb and props by Gwynneth Rausch, establishes the time and place with suitable accuracy while also project a drab “ordinariness” that works especially well for this show. Anthony Anselmo’s lighting is used to striking effect throughout, especially in the birthday party sequences, and the sound by Michael Musgrave-Perkins is also effective. Ryan Lawson-Maeske’s fight-chorography lends to the menacing tone of the play with credible results, as well. 

The Birthday Party, as with other works by Pinter, is a play that is open to interpretation in various ways, and there have been a few differing theories about what is really happening here. Regardless of what it “really” means, though, it’s the feeling of uncertainty and looming threat that dominates, along with a cynical sense of purposelessness and meaningless mundanity in everyday life. These are themes that still resonate now, and this staging highlights them with clarity and intensity. It’s a remarkable, highly memorable production. 

Robert Ashton, Chuck Winning, Nick Freed, Ted Drury
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

Albion Theatre is presenting The Birthday Party at the Kranzberg Arts Center until March 26, 2023

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