The Birthday Party

Apple Tree Theatre

It’s become a critical mantra that Harold Pinter’s plays are impossibly veiled and cryptic. Nothing is as it seems. We can’t say who the characters “really” are, what they’re “really” doing, or what any of it “means.” Yet any of us can spend ten minutes eavesdropping on an unhappy couple on a park bench and understand a great deal. We might not learn a thing about their childhoods, their professions, or the color scheme of their living room. But with a bit of imagination we can see their entire lives. Filling in gaps and honoring hunches is all one needs to understand Pinter, perhaps the most realistic playwright since Chekhov: both find the extraordinary in deceptively ordinary life.

Pinter’s first full-length play, The Birthday Party, premiered in London in 1958–and closed after six performances when it was almost universally panned as meaningless nonsense. Forty-three years later, Chicago’s dailies are reviewing Apple Tree’s production by intoning once again that the play is an enigma, when watching carefully shows there’s nothing mysterious here at all. And thankfully, director Cecilie D. Keenan digs into the play to find practical, real-world interpretations.

In a remote seaside house, the aging, desperately cheerful Meg dotes on her sullen husband, Petey. She asks him to read her the “nice bits” from the newspaper. He doesn’t. So she announces that she’s going upstairs to wake Stanley, whom she calls a boarder. Instantly Petey starts reading from the paper. Is this one of Pinter’s famous non sequiturs? No–Petey is simply trying to keep Meg from going upstairs.

In a moment the reason is obvious (thanks in part to Pinter’s meticulous stage directions). Meg heads up to Stanley’s room, where we hear her laughing wildly. Then there’s silence. Meg returns, slightly disheveled. Stanley appears, Petey exits, and Meg ruffles Stanley’s hair, an action that seems to repulse him: he repeatedly buries his head in his hands yet allows her to continue and even encourages her at times. Among many other things, he mentions that he has no job and that, during the year that he’s lived under her roof, he’s been the sole visitor to this supposed bed-and-breakfast.

Obviously the passion is long gone from Meg and Petey’s marriage, so Meg lavishes her amorous attentions on Stanley, which might explain Petey’s general unwillingness to interact with her. Stanley indulges Meg in order to have a roof over his head, and Meg maintains the fiction of running a bed-and-breakfast to keep her reluctant paramour around. Perhaps critics would prefer Meg to say, “Petey, why don’t you look at me like you used to?” Perhaps Stanley should say, “Meg, we have to talk.” But that would gut Pinter’s drama, whose realism requires us to think.

There is one unanswered question floating over the opening scene: why would Stanley–who’s intelligent and able-bodied–live in the middle of nowhere and tie himself to this woman? The answer arrives at the end of the first act in the personages of Goldberg and McCann, two men full of forced charm who show up and ask for a room. The minute Stanley is alone with them he tries to drive them away, explaining that he’s the manager and there’s no room available. Could Stanley “really” be the manager? No–he’s lying. Instead of leaving, the men corner Stanley and begin to interrogate him. Two questions stand out from the bewildering onslaught: “Why did you leave the organization?” and “Why did you betray us?”

By this point, roughly halfway through the play, Pinter has laid the situation bare. Stanley is hiding out from his former associates, whom he abandoned. Having found him, they intend to bring him back. True, we’re not told the name of the organization, but obviously it’s the kind that sends goons after anyone who decides to leave. Imagine such an organization–a terrorist cell? an organized crime ring?–and the play is crystal clear.

Nothing here is absurd or surreal–save Brian Sidney Bembridge’s nonsensical set, which spreads Meg’s living room across a seemingly endless expanse. This isn’t a room but a curiously shaped, rather empty display case for Keenan’s actors to rattle around in. And though she may have found the reality in the play, she hasn’t yet figured out how to communicate its life-or-death stakes. The first act’s leisurely pace doesn’t allow much tension to develop. And when Meg mentions to Stanley that two men will be stopping by to rent a room he seems only slightly apprehensive. Not until Goldberg and McCann are grilling him with vicious glee is a palpable threat realized onstage, but of course that scene’s sense of danger is unmistakable. This is a world where a word to the wise–or to the foolhardy–should turn blood to ice. The veiled menace that permeates the script is largely absent from this production, however. Keenan’s cast don’t seem to have enough invested in The Birthday Party to make it consistently unsettling.

Yet it’s possible this talented ensemble will find the stakes as the weeks pass. Larry Yando has moments of real ferocity as the smooth-talking Goldberg, when it’s clear that his polished smile masks fangs. However, like Shawn Douglass as the inexplicably skittish McCann, Yando shows a disappointingly limited scope. The same can be said of Maureen Gallagher, whose wonderfully creepy, heartbreaking Meg delivers nearly every line in the same cadence.

If anyone can make this production work it’s Larry Neumann Jr., who’s demonstrated an extraordinary range over the past decade. But though his Stanley is never less than compelling, he’s not a man on the brink, a man whose life has been narrowed to a tiny, fearful dot by the decision to run from his past. After all, Goldberg and McCann reduce Stanley to a near vegetable in only half a day. Neumann and company need to bring The Birthday Party to the edge of the precipice immediately, rather than arrive there after two hours.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.