Party on

A fine USF production of a Pinter masterpiece

Part of the great fun of watching any Harold Pinter play is the obligatory attempt to interpret the baffling onstage antics. This is particularly challenging when the play is The Birthday Party, Pinter's first full-length work and first masterpiece of menace, cryptic dialogue and enigmatically pregnant pauses.

Nobody's really sure what the play's about. The critic Martin Esslin explains it in three ways: Possibly it shows the bourgeois world come to reclaim an artist, or it's about the act of dying, or it's about leaving the safe world of childhood for the difficulties of adulthood. Pinter's biographer Michael Billington has a totally different take: He says The Birthday Party is about the dead hand of tradition coming to punish an individualist who dares to reject outmoded ways of thinking.

Other interpretations abound, one of my favorites belonging to a scholar who insists that the play illustrates the scapegoat theme in J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough. I have my own theories, but now that I've seen this fine production put on by the BRIT program at USF, perhaps the most salient point is that Pinter's plays, as mysterious as they can be, are unfailingly entertaining.

The USF Birthday Party is one of the most satisfying shows I've seen in months, featuring two British actors of the highest caliber along with faculty and students who might as well be professionals. If you're curious as to why Pinter recently received a Nobel Prize, you should start your investigation with a visit to USF's Theatre Two. There you'll find a sinister parable that's already a classic of the modern drama.

The Birthday Party is (superficially) about Stanley Webber, a young man living at a seaside boarding house run by elderly Meg and Petey. Stanley's no typical hero: He's a snotty, sloppy nobody only a mother could love, and he may have found that mother in overly solicitous, reassurance-seeking Meg. Stanley was once, it seems, a pianist; but after he gave one successful concert, some mysterious figures tried to hurt him in some strange way ("they carved me up") and locked him out of the hall in which he was scheduled to play. Now he's a layabout who does nothing in his sulky way except eat breakfast in his pajamas and hold off randy Meg. He's going nowhere — but at least he's safe.

Until, that is, Goldberg and McCann arrive. These two older men check into the boarding house and talk among themselves of having a job to do there — which, it turns out, involves Stanley. In a series of encounters that culminate at his birthday party — though Stanley insists it's not his birthday — the two men haze, hound and harass their victim, accuse him of all sorts of crimes, browbeat and force him to wear a blindfold in a treacherous game of blind man's bluff.

We're given to understand that the assault goes on all evening, though we only see its first minutes. And when the next morning comes, Stanley is changed, it seems, forever. What his real crime was (if there was one), we never learn. All we know now is what he's become — and vaguely, where he's going.

I won't soon forget this excellent USF production. And it's not just because British guest artists Tim Woodward and John McEnery are so convincing in the roles of Goldberg and McCann. Yes, Woodward's Goldberg is a delightfully slick man-about-town, dominating his colleague and everyone else he meets with his self-confident brio. And McEnery makes it abundantly clear that McCann is the uncertain partner, the one who doesn't identify so closely with the Organization, who just does his job and tries not to think too deeply about it.

Jean Calandra is also superb as housewife Meg, as a shallow and sexually needy woman who's not above groping Stanley when she wakes him up in the morning. Another standout is Stacey Kelleher as Lulu, the nubile next-door neighbor who allows Goldberg to seduce her, and who Stanley may try to rape in a brief and ambiguous sequence.

As Stanley, Mason Michael Wiley is fine, though one can imagine a performance with more depth; and Kerry Glamsch as terse Petey — who just wants his tea and paper, thank you — is very funny in act one, though he loses just a touch too much energy in the play's final moments.

Director Marc Powers' staging is kinetic and precise — we may not know who these characters are, but they're as specific and consistent as any Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams personage — and Jessica Daniels' costumes, especially the suits on Goldberg and McCann and the lovely dress worn by Lulu, are notably expressive.

But the real stunner here is Kellan Andersen's surreal set, a combination cottage, primal cave, monument and dreamscape, with various odd pieces flying up into space. This is one of the most impressive stage environments I've seen in years in the Bay area; I wish the artistic directors of our professional theaters would come, look and learn. Pinter's stage directions ask only for a living room; Kellan has given us that and much more. It's a bold choice.

In 1958, when The Birthday Party was first produced and was utterly misunderstood by the London critics (with the important exception of The Times' Harold Hobson), it was Pinter who was the bold one, offering audiences something they'd never seen on the stage, something with echoes of Kafka and Beckett and Ionesco, but fundamentally new and revolutionary and important.

British theater — world theater — hasn't been the same since. And Pinter didn't stop with The Birthday Party; plays like The Caretaker, The Homecoming and Old Times firmed up his hold on the public's attention. They remain among the most provocative dramas in the modern repertoire.

So yes, Pinter is one of the few inarguably major dramatists of our time. See this memorable production — at a university of all places — and discover for yourself what the shouting's about.

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