By Thomas Stubbs, Contributor
“Last night, someone came into my house and replaced everything in it with an exact duplicate.”
That marvelous line, courtesy of stand-up comedian Steven Wright, is at the heart of what makes Harold Pinter’s classic play, “The Birthday Party so peculiar and beguiling. The show delights in subverting the familiar while gradually ratcheting up the tension between its reality and our own, but “The Birthday Party” takes care never to break into out-and-out absurdity. From the moment the lights go up, however, there is something unsettling about the way “The Birthday Party” tries to pass itself off as an eccentric but essentially grounded little character piece.
One year into his stay at a small boarding house on England’s west coast, a man named Stanley has the run of the place. Stanley never fails to have his way with the proprietors, bubbly Meg and her newspaper-bound husband, Petey, despite his foul temper and despondent attitude. However, Stanley’s dominion is threatened by the arrival of two new lodgers, misers Goldberg and McCann, who immediately take it upon themselves to throw the clearly unnerved Stanley a splendid birthday party. It is not his birthday.
What follows is neither a full-blooded comedy — though it is often very funny — nor a character drama — though the characters themselves certainly think it is. Many of the laughs and all of the drama spring from how they translate Pinter’s often absurd dialogue into genuine, powerful emotional expression. The conflict is present, and for the characters, the stakes are very high indeed, but the words don’t match. With “The Birthday Party,” playwright Harold Pinter has broken into our understanding of human expression and replaced everything with an exact duplicate. The result is a play that looks right but feels unmistakably off-kilter. Sometimes that uneasy tension bubbles over into comedy; sometimes it snaps into potent drama. Always, it keeps the play taut and entertaining.
So much of this depends on the cast, and here the Furman Theatre production shines. Under Rhett Bryson’s direction, everyone is on Pinter’s kooky wavelength, crafting their characters into ones that hover just above realism without ever touching down. Alan Smith and Clare Ruble get the show off to a wonderful start with some impeccably-timed husband and wife banter and Derek Leonard’s Stanley is the very embodiment of vitriol. Where some might win over friends with charm, he lords over Petey, Meg and Kenzie Wynne’s Lulu with hate, and finds that infinitely satisfying. Into this broken but stable domestic situation come Goldberg and McCann, played by Sal Donzella and Sam Nelson, respectively, like a hurricane making landfall. The two actors have a wonderful dynamic all their own, and the intricate verbal duets that they direct at Stanley are a highlight of the show.
Lauren Girouard’s set and the work of the props crew must also be commended. Together, they create a charming domestic world that is just this side of normal, the perfect backdrop for what unfolds. The container which holds and dispenses milk at the breakfast table gets a laugh all its own.
Harold Pinter once wrote of “The Birthday Party:” “The play is a comedy because the whole state of affairs is absurd and inglorious. It is, however, as you know, a very serious piece of work.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve never seen a play that so deftly derives both comedy and drama from the same source. Like Steven Wright’s line, “The Birthday Party” works because it wrings comedy from the unsettling, and as the night goes on, the nervous laugh and the shocked gasp are shown to be very close relatives indeed.
The Birthday Party continues its run from Oct. 6 to 8 at 8:00 p.m., with a Sunday Matinee on Oct 9 at 3:00 p.m.