In the parlor/dining room of a sleazy boardinghouse, two patterns of wallpaper at war with each other, the day’s just beginning with a husband’s diffidence over a tabloid and a wife’s incessant, skewed platitudes (almost malapropisms) from the Pullman kitchen: is the news good, is the weather nice?
And the audience at the Aurora laughs at the banalities, even as an unnoticed but felt darkness begins leaking out, like gas, from between the comic mislocutions of Harold Pinter’s perfect rendition of small talk; the laughter at moments almost as if by compulsion: laugh, or have your teeth set on edge.
That uncanny, exquisitely painful comic sense Pinter has absolutely mastered, his characters eking out their lines like fingernails scratching a windowpane. “It’s an old cliche’ that novelists and playwrights evesdrop in tearooms for their dialogue,” said Pinter’s first publisher, John Calder, “but that’s precisely what Harold did.” And recalling a visit to another of his authors, Calder gave Samuel Beckett’s ribbing of the manuscript his friend Pinter just sent: “You know Harold. Always the same: Menace in a room!”
Pinter’s genius is boldly apparent from the start, as the Aurora’s exceptional production of The Birthday Party, the Nobel laureate’s first full-length play, readily shows. By the time the sole boarder, a dishevelled and haunted former piano player, descends the stairs with the demeanor of a castaway, the unseen machinery of that menace has begun to turn, as surely as the wheel of fate in classic tragedy.
Learning that two gentlemen have inquired of the man of the house if there’s a room to let, Stan the ex-pianist mutters: “Why are they coming now? Why not yesterday?” A young woman enters with a big package, alternately flirting with and rebuffing Stan. And finally the expected pair arrive, an ebullient Goldberg and dour McCann, nice cop and tough cop to the ever more paralysed Stan, a wildebeest frozen with foreboding.
It’s Stan’s birthday, the landlady declares, and this curious, quickly-assembled menage makes ready to celebrate—all except Stan, who denies it’s his birthday, that he’s the man the visitors must think he is, that the home they’re in is a boarding house. The party proceeds with off-kilter toasts, and fun and games reminiscent of air raid drills, or the brash hazing techniques of interrogators.
Aurora’s artistic director Tom Ross has directed the work of the extraordinary ensemble assembled to bring these strange, ghostly echoes, like a dimly remembered dream, to life onstage. A few of them are familiar faces, and these old troupers of the Bay Area theater scene are at the top of their game, even exceeding themselves. Phoebe Moyer plays landlady Meg, an oversold ingenue, with a vengeance, making her the ultimate comically effete meddler in a long line descending from Elizabethan and Restoration comedies.
Emily Jordan is a pert, seemingly selfaware Lulu, caught up short in the serious play of make-believe loving, a decoy of sorts. Julian Lopez-Morillas chimes in as hail-fellow Goldberg, ready to toll a dirge in an instant, jangling his pleasantries with mordant, barely concealed threats. Michael Ray Wisely enacts the bushy-browed, lurking McCann, moving crabwise across the parlor, whose “Na?” signifies the constantly negative: “Isn’t it so?”
James Carpenter as Stan makes a phenomenal turn out of stasis, rigidity, becoming at one briefly violent moment a mere suit of clothes hanging on McCann’s fist, like on a line in the wind. And Chris Ayles is the deadpan Petey, seemingly remote man of the house, yet salt of the earth, whose admonition, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” is the one straight-forward bit of human communication in this harrowing charade.
All play the tightly constructed text like a perfectly rehearsed chamber group, making music together--immediacy out of an intricate score printed on the page.
Pinter’s tragicomedies stem from Strindberg’s eerie anatomies of guilt and intention, a technique of musing monologues addressed to an unspeaking other, syncopated by dialogue voiced in the veiled language of power.
Touched with farce, and the post-surrealism of the Absurd, his plays come on the heels of the so-called Angry Young Men, describing the sordid post-Suez English scene with immediate language, as John Osbourne (another Strindbergian) did, but with an indirect, impersonal approach, a kind of unrhapsodic prosody from an unerring ear for the kind of speech that goes overlooked, peopled with the same recognizable types, unexalted blue collar countenances that simultaneously reveal and conceal themselves with the common coin of careless words, the jagged pattern of dissociated actions.
The Birthday Party
Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 and 7 p.m.
2081 Addison St.
through March 11
Photograph by David Allen
James Carpenter, Phoebe Moyer, and Chris Ayles in The Birthday Party.