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Review: The Undermain's Happy, Happy 'Birthday Party'

by Jerome Weeks 11 May 2012 5:31 PM

We’ve come to accept so much of what Harold Pinter pioneered in The Birthday Party. From Monty Python to David Mamet, we’ve found his menace, his puzzles, his great, off-the-wall humor. It takes the Undermain and director Patrick Kelly to find the old-fashioned, theatrical delight.


Youll wear a silly hat and you’ll like it: Gregory Lush faces Marcus Stimac  and Bruce Dubose (l to r) in the Undermain Theatre’s The Birthday Party

  • Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)

From the start, something looks off with the Undermain Theatre’s revival of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Written in 1958, Pinter’s first, full-length comedy-drama is set in a tatty boardinghouse in a tatty British seaside resort. Yet scene designer John Arnone has given the sitting room the biggest, brightest, reddest, poppy wallpaper pattern. Hell, it even has sparkles.

The Birthday Party comes from an England that’s pre-swinging London, pre-Beatles. So where are the tea stains, the sagging woodwork and the leaky gas heaters? Pinter’s people live in a diminished era of fried bread for breakfast and elderly gents shuffling to work as deckchair attendants. England was still recovering from the Suez Crisis and a World War II victory that left it exhausted and close to bankrupt. Yet much like Arnone, costume designer Giva Taylor has given most of the characters spiffy, crisply-laundered threads. It’s true of Dallas-area theaters in general: When it comes to period realism, we don’t do “dowdy and dusty” very well. It’s all too sad and … un-Dallas.

But here, it’s more than the production looking shiny and proper. Actor Marcus Stimac seems to have stepped out of a stylish, French New Wave film from the period. He plays McCann, a sidekick-thug who comes to the boardinghouse. Stimac — with a profile like a cliff — could easily pass for Jean-Paul Belmondo’s dimmer, funnier brother, straight out of Breathless (1960).

Take those details as signs: Director Patrick Kelly has put this Pinter on its toes. This Birthday Party is a real party, a wickedly festive affair. What Kelly has done is not simply emphasize Pinter’s comic skills — the Dallas Theater Center did that when it revived the play in 1989. This is a knowingly theatrical revival, very aware of its stage echoes and antecedents, its polished bits of comic business. McCann’s boss, Goldberg — to take just one instance — is played by Bruce DuBose as an old-school music-hall entertainer, all hokey flourishes and ruthless self-interest. We’ve long heard of Pinter’s politics, his shadowy meanings, his characteristic way of mixing menace and malaise. We’ve rarely sensed his delight in the theater — as we do in this superlative revival.

Pinter was always an odd fit for Martin Essler’s evocative but clumsy term, “theater of the absurd” (for his part, Samuel Beckett never granted the description any accuracy). Pinter’s plays — his early ones, at any rate, like The Birthday Party — couldn’t take place in a less absurd, more solid time frame: the Cold War, the deflating Empire. And there’s rarely any surreal confusion about what takes place, either. No laws of the universe are broken. Two strangers, McCann and Goldberg, show up at the boardinghouse run by Meg and Petey Boles and they drag away the only lodger, Stanley, a failed pianist.

Perhaps because of the ‘absurdist’ label, perhaps because of the many debates over the years surrounding Pinter’s meanings and politics, perhaps because directors have wanted to counter all that by ‘rooting’ the play in tangible ways (Pinter’s was the era, after all, when the term “kitchen sink realism” was coined), Pinter productions have often been as drear and period-detailed as possible.

The Birthday Party and The Caretaker can be the great exceptions. When well done, they surmount all that, playing out beautifully in two modes: the suspense thriller and the anarchic comedy. In fact, rather than “absurd,” they can seem as hard-boiled and realistic (and taut and funny) as anything by David Mamet (who, the Undermain’s revival makes clear, learned everything he needed to know about jackhammering, back-and-forth dialogue from Act 2).

But unlike in Mamet, the destabilizing issue in Pinter is always why? It’s human motives that remains mysterious — as in life. Why have Goldberg and McCann hunted down Stanley? What did he do? If this is a mob hit or some political revenge (the Irish Republican Army?), why does Stanley act like he doesn’t know what’s up? If it is a hit job or a bit of secret police wetwork, why do the two men take this roundabout approach, throwing Stanley a celebration, bringing in liquor and playing party games?

UMT-The-Birthday-Party-pressFamously, when The Birthday Party played Broadway in 1967, the New York Times ran a letter from a baffled theatergoer who wanted to know exactly who were Stanley and the two men, and were they all normal? Pinter replied, Who are you and are you normal?

In the years since, we seem to have become more tolerant of such abiding uncertainties and of Pinter’s particular blend of non sequiturs, brooding intimidations and deadpan humor. When Goldberg and McCann start grilling Stanley in Act 2, shouting threats at him and asking irrational questions about which numbers are necessary or probable, it points forward to Mamet but also to Monty Python, to those riotously logical-illogical sketches, gems like the Cheese Shop and the Dead Parrot.

Indeed, at the start, when boardinghouse owner Meg Boles (Mary Lang, above, with Lush as Stanley) enters and cheerfully pesters her husband Petey (T. A. Taylor), asking in her best daft, flutey-matron voice if his breakfast cornflakes are ‘nice,’ one half-expects to see her being played in drag by Terry Jones or John Cleese.

For the Theater Center’s 1989 revival, Beverly May turned Meg into a poignant Edith Bunker, laughably out-of-touch but kindhearted. Here, Lang is so appealingly vivacious, her Meg is having such a good time flirting with Stanley and oohing over the new guests, she seems another one of director Kelly’s choices to inject some theatrical winks and liveliness. Lang’s Meg is like a retired stage actress, still eager for attention, looking for a little singing and dress-up and a spotlight. “I was the belle of the ball!” she announces merrily the morning after Stanley’s brutal encounter with McCann and Goldberg. With Beverly May, we thought, Meg’s just clueless, even a bit sad. With Lang, we think, well, she’s happy in her solipsistic little dreamworld, isn’t she?

Not the worst choice, given Pinter’s sucking undertow of darkness. In this noir-ish world, the most theatrical (and frightening) creature is Bruce DuBose’s Goldberg, who evokes nothing so much as Laurence Olivier’s acidic old music-hall fraud, Archie Rice in The Entertainer. (Thanks to costumer Taylor, Goldberg is a flashier-dressed Rice, with his dove-grey Homburg and wingtips — apparently, whatever it is he does for a living pays well). Goldberg joins some of DuBose’s funniest, creepiest creations, his bullying, buffoonish monsters, a pantheon that includes Hamm in Endgame, the elderly mob boss in The Dog Problem and the Nazi Gottleb in Peter Barnes’ Laughter!

It’s characteristic of Kelly’s deft direction that he’s assembled such a rich cast (I haven’t gotten around to Lush’s ratty, frozen panic as Stanley). He’s made a real find in Stimac (a recent SMU grad). Kelly even manages to work in a classic sight gag I’ve never seen before in any Birthday Party: Early on, Goldberg insists that McCann smile to fit in better at the boardinghouse. The stone-faced Stimac’s struggles to look benign are both funny and endearing. It’s as if McCann has never used those facial muscles before and is not entirely clear what ‘smiling’ entails.

Goldberg, the old pro, is essentially teaching him how to act.