In response to a description of the landlady at the house where I was renting a room in Exeter in the southwest of England, an English friend told me, “We have a tradition of eccentric landladies.” The landlady in The Lavender Hill Mob flashed into my mind, though she didn’t have a lot in common with my landlady. Even so…
In Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which opened last week in an A.C.T. production at The Geary Theater in San Francisco, the odd landlady Meg (played by Judith Ivey) is a good representative. Sunk in banal domesticity and fascinated by her male lodger, she has converted her repressions into a kind of distraction – a diffuse and wandering attention interrupted by recurrent pull-backs that take the form of pleasing the two men in her life, her husband Petey (deftly played by Dan Hiatt) and the lodger Stanley (Firdous Bamji). She’s ditzy, if you will, and as Pinter did will.
There are other British characters in the play whose most transparent affiliations attach multiple and predictable meanings to their identities: the somewhat sleazy, verbally adept and obviously Jewish Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) and his sidekick, the taciturn Irishman McCann (Marco Barricelli) who is given to drinking whiskey out of a bottle and singing sentimental love songs (beautifully) when soused. Both characters take on ominous roles, based perhaps on the very fact of being cultural outsiders. No explanation is offered as to why they appear in the story to confront, verbally abuse and carry off the lodger Stanley. We aren’t even sure what their first names are: Nate? Benny? Simey? Dermott? Seamus? They are paradigms of Otherness. An Otherness Pinter himself would have felt keenly.
They disrupt the humdrum, repetitious lives of Meg and Petey, seduce the witless girl next-door Lulu (Julie Adamo), and carry off the lodger, who like them is hopelessly Other. The lodger, as he tells his story, is thoroughly unreliable. He was a concert pianist. Uh, maybe. The narrative of his life shifts, he is constantly downsizing the events in his life. And he is given to emotional outbursts. He, like Meg, seems slightly mad, only his madness is less acceptable, less benign, less domestic. His persona remains opaque.
There is something lost in the translation of this play from British to American, especially Californian, culture. That being said, I wished throughout the performance that the players had a better grip on their British accents. Except for Hiatt, their various accents wavered.
Pinter’s play is deemed a “comedy of menace” and falls under a second category, Theater of the Absurd. The menace in the play appears throughout the play in the lack of apparent explanation for each character’s presence and acts, and is distilled in the interrogation scene during which Goldberg and McCann throw a series of unanswerable questions, peppered with accusations, at the cringing Stanley. “Where is your old mum?” “Why did you change your name?” “What is your name now?” “Do you recognize an external force?” “Do you recognize an external force, responsible for you, suffering for you?” “When did you last pray?” “Is the number 846 possible or necessary?” “Where is your lechery leading you?” And on. And on. No answer Stanley gives is adequate, and at last he is reduced to silence, his interrogators leaning over him, grinding him down. Finally, they escort him off to Goldberg’s fancy car, his future in doubt.
In the midst of our world and at this point in our history, the menace seems rather pale. The danger in our current world is not about existential absurdity or lack of answers, or the lingering shadows of Germany’s Nazi threat dispelled at great price to the survivors. Although our president may vacillate in his twitter-y comments, the motivations of those in power in the U.S. are only too clear. And the growing reality of their acts is spelled out in fine detail in threats of nuclear punishment and patchwork legislation.
Better to define the play as absurd. Its juxtapositions and its sense of life are exactly that. Absurd but not as terrifying as the moment.
Carey Perloff has chosen this to be her final play as the director leading A.C.T. It’s a play written by a playwright she had close ties with and whose work was pivotal in her career. It’s her farewell – and an honorable one.
– Jaime Robles
Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party continues at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through Sunday, February 4. For information and tickets, visit act-sf.org.