New Fortune Theatre Company, the new kid of theatres on the block, founded by Richard Baird, who was so wonderful in Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ this year at North Coast Repertory Theatre is tackling Pinter once again in Pinter’s early play ‘The Birthday Party’. As head of his own company, he directs as well as taking on the role of one of the mysterious characters, McCann.
‘The Birthday Party’ is Harold Pinter’s second full-length play and the second production mounted by New Fortune Theatre Company.The play is now one of Pinter’s most produced. This was not the case when it first opened in 1957 as it opened to tepid reviews. Over the years it gained momentum, but somehow San Diego managed to mount it only once before and that was at the Old Globe under direction of the late Craig Noel back in the 60’s. Now with Baird at the helm and picking up the Pinter gauntlet, we get to see what all the fuss was about, or not,
Watching a Pinter play is like putting a big jigsaw puzzle together. Some pieces fit, others do not! The characters in ‘Party’, there are six, come into play at the home of Meg and Petey’s (Dana Hooley and Marcus Overton) seaside lodgings somewhere in London. Their quiet little cottage may or may not be a boarding house but for the purposes of this play, it is.
Meg is in her own world of make believe while Petey is more realistic, but plays along with Meg. Theirs is a comfortable but routine life style, a sort of leave it alone even if its broken. Both seem determined to do just that. He reads the news she shuffles about making small talk. They’ve acted in this play before. (‘What time did you go out Petey?’ ‘Same time.’ ‘Is it nice out?’ ‘Very nice.’)
Their one lodger, Stanley (Max Macke) residing there for a bit over a year claims he was a concert pianist. ‘Once I gave a concert’. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. Meg believes he did because, well she’s smitten with him and anything he tells her is more interesting than anything her conversations with Petey might be. What we do know about Stanley that he is hiding from something or someone.
His erratic and suspicious behavior, which both Meg and Petey are used to, is evident the moment we meet him coming down the stairs for breakfast. Looking like he just came in from sleeping behind an old dumpster, shoes, no socks, trousers and filthy pajama top, hair dis-shelved and a face in true need of a good scrubbing, he barely grunts out a word but manages a ‘good morning’,
They go back and fourth about breakfast, cornflakes and milk he claims is ‘off’, and he riles her up when he refers to his fried bread as something ‘succulent’. ‘You shouldn’t say that word to a married woman’. And later on, ‘Am I really succulent?’ It looks like playtime, but Stanley is hardly one to play games, as we will see later on at the ‘party’
When Meg tells him that she is waiting the arrival of two visitors who inquired about a boarding house (‘This house is on the list’) he nearly goes ballistic, pacing and questioning even to the point of having a full-scale panic attack. ‘Didn’t they tell you their names?’
Their one occasional visitor is a gal named Lulu (Amanda Schaar), Meg’s friend, a flirt who may or not be interested in Stanley. (‘You’re a bit of a washout’) He’s so distracted and into his own self, that we don’t know what he feels toward her. What we do know and see is that Stanley and Meg have a push me pull you relationship each egging the other on. It could be Oedipal or not.
So far one might or might not call this little family set up nothing out of the ordinary, but as framed by Pinter and deftly directed by Baird, everything in ‘Birthday Party’ is out of whack, even frighteningly bizarre when Goldberg (Matthew Henerson) and McCann come into the picture. Dressed like businessmen in suits and tie and carrying luggage that may or may not contain clothes, one has the immediate feeling that all three; Stanley, McCann and Goldberg know each other. Therein lies the enigma. How do they know each other? What’s the relationship and what’s the plan? Please don’t think that Pinter reveals anything. He does not. Less is more in any Pinter play.
In ‘Betrayal’ everyone was betrayed, and in deconstructing the affairs of the couples, the audience knew about the betrayals before anyone else. It is a brilliant tactic and was well received. Not so in ‘Birthday Party’. ‘Birthday Party’ is a cloth of a different stripe. As an observer, one will be hard pressed to come up with a definitive ‘who’s on first’.
Suffice it to say, Baird is meticulous in developing his characters. Dana Hooley, who does so well with both Beckett and Pinter, is, once again outstanding as the seemingly ditsy and redundant wife of Petey. It is she who announces a celebration for Stanley’s birthday over his protests that it is NOT his birthday. In honor of his birthday she gives him a toy drum, which he finally uses to her detriment.
Both Goldberg and McCann are students of the mind control sect; a look, a movement and after a while ‘party torture’. In a setting that comes right out of a Nazi Germany torture movie playbook, we watch Stanley’s breakdown in horror while the world looks on.
It’s difficult to guess their game, but the loquacious and jovial Goldberg has volumes to say. From Stanley’s body language and movements it apparently resonates on some level and the further into the ‘party’ the more torturous the game. The more torturous the game, the more Stanley withdraws. The more Stanley withdraws, the more power Goldberg and McCann exercise over him.
We learn about Goldberg’s childhood, but nothing we hear gives a clue as to what’s about to happen. Once again, Pinter and Baird slowly move in for the kill and horrifying as it is, all we can do is gape and speculate. But don’t be deceived by looks. This reviewer knew Henderson’s Goldberg was doing his job, when she felt chills watching him torment Stanley. As far as Goldberg was concerned he was cool, calm and collected. On the other hand there is Baird’s McCann. Now that’s someone else to shrink from. Serious, sinister and angry looking he does Goldberg’s dirty work, systematically and methodically.
It was a little strange to watch him tearing straight strips of newspaper from Petey’s news. No doubt it is a clue to his obsessive-compulsive behavior. Perhaps there are others? My instinct tells me some are red herrings. But watching him break Stanley’s glasses in two says volumes about the character. His destruction and revenge on Stanley are the real McCoy.
Marcus Overtone’s Petey is the only smart one in the group. He works as a deckchair attendant at a seaside resort and but for a few appearances here and there, (he’s absent from the party) he get’s Goldberg and McCann. He also sees the relationship between Meg and Stanley and lets that pass as well. He’s just comfortable with things as they are, and refuses to stir up the pot. Overtone fits into Petey’s world perfectly.
Max Macke, who so artfully played Jeffrey Skilling in Moxie’s ‘Enron’ last year, gives another Bravo performance as the tortured and oppressed Stanley about to have a nervous breakdown. Macke’s mood and comportment build like a house of cards. One wrong move, one strong breath and bingo, it all falls down. No spoilers here on what eventually happens to him, just know in the past he must have had better birthday celebrations.
Marty Burnett built the set that serves the purpose of the play well. Baird and Shaar contributed to the costume look that pretty much fit both time and place. Matt Novotny’s lighting design is perfect. Julian Frost coached on the dialect but I still had trouble following Baird’s Irish accent. Other than that, Baird’s intensity in his character development is always worthy of five stars.
Recently I attended two birthday parties on the same day. One was a Pokémon Party for my seven-year-old grandson; the other was a Pinter Party.
Guess which one I had the most fun at?
Next up for New Fortune Theatre is Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’. Time to read up some more on The Theatre of the Absurd.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Aug. 30th
Organization: New Fortune Theatre Company
Production Type: Black Comedy
Where: 6663 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego, CA 92115
Ticket Prices: Start at $26.00
Venue: Moxie Theatre