Years after Harold Pinter's first full-length play, "The Birthday Party," received mostly hostile reviews,the British playwright told anybody listening that "I find critics on the whole to be a pretty unnecessary bunch of people."
Well, thanks a lot, Harold. It's a good thing that I'm not thin-skinned because, over the years, I've sat through many "Pinteresque moments," a term the playwright dislikes. Pinter's plays nearly all fall into the category of "comedies of menace," and I've written about them with, ultimately, a mix of admiration, wonder, praise and puzzlement, all the while finding myself in league with a Pinter friend and contemporary, David Hare: "You never know what the hell is coming next." Amen to that.
"The Birthday Party" bowed in 1957 and with it began the Pinter formula used in the body of work that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005: Seemingly innocent situations, with ordinary, everyday people going about their business, suddenly turn sinister with the addition of "outside forces," a visitor or a subtle change in mundane habits. Perfectly sunny days can go instantly awry.
A case in point: Meg and Petey's run-down English seaside boarding house, with one tenant, troubled and reclusive Stanley, welcomes two new boarders, a Mr. Goldberg and a Mr. McCann. Stanley is suspicious. Who are these guys? What do they want? The two newcomers, spouting humble births and family values, begin immediately, albeit imperceptibly at first, their carefully planned assignment to intimidate, humiliate and crush Stanley, whose birthday it is according to the ditzy Meg. Audiences never learn if Stanley has been tracked down because of a past bad deed or is merely a random victim.
So begins the Irish Classical Theatre Company's revival of "The Birthday Party," a struggle for power and dominance, a story that starts out sweet and homey and, in typical Pinter fashion, goes bizarre in a heartbeat. Niceties give way to cryptic small talk. Pauses take on meaning and in silence there is threat. Goldberg and McCann verbally torture Stanley as language is suddenly layered and used as a weapon in a quick and repetitive cadence that is peculiarly poetic. There are bouts of rage, accusations and psychological abuses. Violence lurks. So much for a day at the shore.
Greg Natale directs for the company, skillfully building tension, poisoning the vernacular, turning the trivial nightmarish. He has the players to do this, of course, some experienced with Pinter, others new to the game: Journeyman actor Gerry Maher, Josephine Hogan, Todd Benzin -- faultless here -- Leah Russo, Vincent O'Neill and Guy Wagner, as the psychopathic suits. It's a wonderful cast, superbly directed.
Pinter was once asked what his plays were all about. He replied that they were about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet." Because audiences leave plays like "The Birthday Party" with more questions than when they came in, that explanation suddenly doesn't seem so foolish or flippant or far-fetched.
A final note. Scott Behrend's set pieces, scattered over several areas, serve the play well.
"The Birthday Party"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Comedy presented through Feb. 11 by Irish Classical Theatre Company in Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St. For more information, call 853-4282 or visit www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.