A gentleman lounging in his bathrobe descends into oblivion as two men in identical suits, distinguishable only through the color that lines their lapels, wheel about him. As the two men circle their prey like sharks in a pool, they take him down with language delivered at the speed of a machine gun. Suddenly, they stop. Silence. Despite the end of the interrogation-like attack, the room is still spinning as the audience tries to get its balance and catch up with the marathon dialogue.
Such is a scene is typical of The University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Pinter’s language, style, and even plotting itself are all largely ambiguous. It’s as if he writes as a fisherman fishes – casting dozens, if not hundreds, of hooks out into the sea that is the audience for us to latch onto, like the quickly delivered interrogation dialogue, to then be painfully reeled into something that should seem like meaning. We are then unhooked and thrown back into the water with nothing to show for it but the scar of the experience. Indeed, the audience is led in circles, literally, by director Matt Davis. While Pinter baits, hooks, and reels in his audience only to release them, Davis’s direction mirrors this cyclic action with his characters’ literal movement through the space.
The play begins simply enough. Set in the living room of a seaside boarding house in Britain, Meg, played by Carrie Poh, makes breakfast for her husband, Petey, and their sole tenant, Stanley. Petey, performed by Ryan Williams, is unexpressive and silent to the point of imbecility. Stanley, portrayed by David Bolus, is an out-of-work pianist with delusions – or maybe they’re realities? – of grandeur. Entering into this cheery setup are two visitors: Goldberg and McCann, played by Jordan DeWitt and Jameson Vaughan, respectively. On Meg’s cue, they learn that it’s Stanley’s birthday. They all insist on throwing him a party – except Stanley, himself, insists that it is not his birthday at all. The party is thrown and chaos ensues.
Carrie Poh is a riot at Meg– she would fit right in with the cast of Are You Being Served? or Fawlty Towers. David Bolus’s Stanley is wrought with a kind of Gene Wilder-esque mania with stakes that rise and fall as quickly as a drumstick can beat a snare. Jordan DeWitt and Jameson Vaughan work together as Goldberg and McCann with rapid-fire interrogation-like dialogue that would render world-class auctioneers tied-tongued (even if Vaughan’s Irish brogue is a bit touch-and-go). Ryan Williams delivers a surprisingly conscious portrayal of Meg’s husband, Petey – what appears to be a lack of interest and potential ambivalence toward his wife is revealed to be something clearly more caring if not protective… or, perhaps something a bit more sinister. Similarly, Taylor Coffman plays Lulu, a younger woman who attends the party, with sultriness full of poison – was it there all along or has she been infected? Love and malice dance a fiendish dervish in this world and they spin so fast you can’t seem to tell them apart.
Stylistically, Pinter’s plays pose a plethora of problems for any company. So few solid facts are ever revealed about the characters or world that Pinter creates. The world is hyper-realistic, largely denying the audience such typically contrived elements like obviously delivered exposition or recognizably well-rounded characters. Instead, the characters seems to have a secret past that isn’t revealed to us but that every other character may or may not know about. The result in this production is performances that walk the tightrope somewhere between Monty Python and Chekhov. Strangely enough, the characters and performances are as funny as the funniest of Python sketches one moment and as dire and bleak as Chekhov the next. If I were to graphically render this effect, it would end up looking like the heart monitor of a marathon runner.
The design elements tend to further compliment the overall notion of circles and cycles, and yet also add to the undermining effect. The set itself (designed by Megan LaLonde) is a single room full of complete and semi-circles – the table, chairs, even the landing is a quarter-circle. Stylistically, the room is a jumble of styles ad tastes that somehow both go together ad clash at the same time. The costume designs (appropriately in a late-50s/early 60s style) by Cassie Hoppas don’t provide obvious meanings through color that one might expect. For example, Goldberg and McCann are fitted with matching suits with color-lined lapels in the first two acts. By act three, the color has been drained and Stanley is also in a matching suit. Stanley’s conformity or imprisonment may be at play – but then what does this say about McCann and Goldberg’s relationship?
Both the lighting and sound design (Chris Collins and Edward Pottorff, respectively) play with a kind of staunch realism and emotive expressiveness. The lights shift seamlessly in and out of naturalistic lighting during mundane conversation to light that fills the room with shadows that zigzag across the players. Similarly, when a door opens to the outside, birds can be heard. Still, before the performance and during intermission, piano music ranging from jarring to lovely is also played from beyond the walls of the set, bringing and keeping us into the music of Stanley’s mind we’ll never hear – like the words he inevitably can’t find by the close.
While the play’s plot, action, and effects are somewhat cyclical and meaning seems to be inherently denied or undercut, this production’s staging and designs largely emphasize that point. Perhaps there is something to be found in that. It would seem that, in Pinter’s world as interpreted by Davis, day-to-day life is full of uncertainties – about what we are doing, about where we have come from, and where we are going.
~ Nic Barilar
The University of Alabama’s production of The Birthday Party runs April 7-12. For tickets and other information, please visit the UA Department of Theatre & Dance website.