21 March 2004: Pinter, The Birthday Party

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by JoAnne Akaleitis. Opened 6 March 2004.

A very well acted production of this early play by Pinter. We are now well used to the Pinter mode of the inexplicable and the ambiguous. Pinter has taught us that we should consider it “alarming” when a dramatist pretends to know all that is to be known about a dramatic character. To Pinter, dramatic characters are, no less than human beings, opaque, unknowable — but yet are eminently observ­able. Pinter is a precise, often a brilliant technician in this regard. In one of the observations he has made, quoted in the program, he says, “What goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism.”

What Joanne Akalaitis is doing (whatever it is) is also definitely not “real­ism.” What it is still needs to be taken under advisement. But it seems that she has devised a setting and an approach to Pinter’s text that seeks a visual and behavioral analogy to the infamous ambiguity of meaning in the play itself. The set is a good bit wider than it is deep; what we get is an unusually large, oversized parlor in the scuzzy boardinghouse where Stanley Weber has taken refuge. Unstylish lounge chairs are ranged against the upper wall; at the stage left end, a large television set broadcasts an unending drama, in complete silence. The high walls of the room (the great height of the ART proscenium and stage space has been taken complete advantage of here) are painted to resemble a watery environment of the ocean. In the upstage wall there are two rectangular, oversize windows on either side of a wide, steep staircase, painted black; at the first level above the stage floor, there is an exit to the outside, stage left, past one of the windows, which has thick, milky glass in it; to stage right, there is a passageway to the kitchen, part of which we can see when, at the beginning of the play, Meg raises the occluded glass to pass Petey his cereal (he has to reach up high for it). And before the action begins, and during much of it as well, we hear, first, the cries of seabirds and then, once immersed in this sub-sonar envir­onment, the strange unreal sounds we associate with those heard by occupants of a bathysphere. The side walls, angled outward from the upstage wall, are detached from that wall three feet or so, enough to create a passage through which, at a certain early point, enter, upstage left, Goldberg and McCann, suitcase and briefcases in hand. And at the end of the play, as Stanley enters in a dark traveling suit, is seated in the upstage chair at the dining table, and is grilled unmercifully by Goldberg and McCann before being led helpless out to their waiting car, the side walls slide in, pushing the TV and miscellaneous furniture together as they go. This menacing movement doesn’t happen all at once but in stages, during the pauses between dialogue.

And so Akalaitis summons us into her bathyspheric space, an unreal world full of ambiguity and menace. It is as if she looked for a special, quasi-expression­istic setting that would form a striking and appropriate analogy to the not-real­ism of Pinter’s world.

My test for whether such overt, explicit metaphor works or not is a simple one: does it serve the play? If it does, fine; if not, it ends up calling attention to itself (and to the director) and so distracts from the play itself. My sense of it is that the bathysphere overwhelms the play, crowding out the eerie feeling Pinter’s text would seem to create; that is, the uncanny disjunction between what seems to be an ordinary, crummy boardinghouse in, say, Brighton and the strange beyond-realism of the characters and action. In a way, it’s no wonder that weird things go on in a place as weird as this; no surprise, to see such odd behavior in creatures that appear to dwell in so hostile and inhuman a setting. Akalaitis has decided to explicate that eeriness by giving it a local habitation (though no name) and so has deprived it of its mystery. We know Pinter’s setting; we have seen it a hundred times, in kitchen-sink school plays from the twenties and thirties, in films; everywhere. It is precisely its familiarity that Pinter is counting on, in order to make the inexplicable grow out of it and arrest us by its unknowability. Akal­aitis has spoiled the game. I think what I dislike the most about her approach is that it feels condescending, almost as if the present-day audience would not “get it” about Pinter’s take on human vulnerability unless it were helped along a lot with a setting that provided an instructional overlay enabling us to construe it satisfactorily.

Yet, notwithstanding this heavy-handed attempt to put her highly embossed stamp on a play that needs no help from her, she has worked quite wonderfully with the six actors who make up the play’s cast of characters. Thomas Darrah is fine as Stanley, though, as is so often the case, he is not without the mannered walk (a little to the left, a little to the right, and slouch) that survives all but the most canny and determined director’s attempts to whip him into shape. Will Le Bow is especially good as Goldberg; he is better than anyone else in the ART company at playing a hollow braggadocio. The more he fulminates, foams and raves, the more we realize there is nothing but hot air in his veins. He has been a fine cast member of the ART’’s various ventures into Molière, and he is equally adept here. And Remo Airaldi is even better as McCann, a truly troubled and withdrawn man who finally cracks, near the end of the play — and, in one of Pinter’s most successful comic lines, is excused for his waywardness by Goldberg because he has “only been unfrocked for six months.” Airaldi is sometimes just all over the map, and is especially prone to that considering the tendency of direct­ors to cast this very fat actor of limited emotional and characterological range in far-out roles; but he is quite perfect here as the withdrawn, taciturn McCann who, we realize, is near the breaking point almost all through the play, and can assert himself only in situations where the object of his cover-up aggression is some­one — Stanley, as it happens — even more vulnerable and defenseless than himself. Petey is Terence Rigby, who manages to make an absolutely normal, colorless character into a presence. The Meg is Karen McDonald, who under Akalaitis’s direction is a caricature of her tizzy self, the dim-witted, ingratiating landlady par excellence with, as Pinter enlarges her, no little amount of libido imperfectly hidden under her motherly solicitousness.

Things can’t be all bad if Akalaitis does this well with her actors. Perhaps the only weak note was sounded by Elizabeth Laidlaw as Lulu; cast to type as this big, bouncing girl, Laidlaw must be six feet four inches tall and towers over the others, especially over Thomas Darrah’s Stanley, hardly five feet eight; and her absurd black bouffant wig adds another four inches to her stature. She is made to speak in a strange, faux-Germanic accent that is discernible but not definite enough, and Laidlaw seems not to have quite settled into her role. She did what the director told her to do. An acquaintance wondered what Lulu was doing in the play. There is rationale enough for her presence, especially if Pinter’s suggestion that Lulu has a bit of a crush on Stanley is pursued (Akalaitis did not pursue this, for reasons best known to herself). And students of European drama will know that “Lulu” is the name of Frank Wedekind’s damned heroine in the play of that name and in the opera Alban Berg made from it — a demonic pres­ence whose morbid sexuality lures men to their doom. A Pinteresque joke, per­haps, in making her a curious, flighty, overgrown schoolgirl you can get drunk and seduce, as Goldberg does. In short, much, including much that’s ambiguous, for an actress to work with in Lulu, but Laidlaw was merely comp­etent in it.

One other note: whenever the characters came to a moment marked with a “(Pause)” by Pinter, they froze, for a count of perhaps five. It’s unclear what Akalaitis was hoping to achieve by directing her actors to do this. Maybe this was a way of helping the audience to recognize the famous Pinter pause and thinking they might otherwise miss it. If so, it’s another instance of condescen­sion to an audience quite capable of handling this by itself.

(Added commentary: an exchange of email messages with a friend who saw the production with me)

JD: I didn’t mention this, but Lulu is the name of the heroine, demonized and doomed, of Frank Wedekind’s two late nineteenth century plays collectively known under that title. She gets men into trouble and they never recover from it, even while she herself is on a collision course with terminal disaster. I think Pinter is having his little joke here, giving us a much-overgrown schoolgirl with a crush on Stanley, very much an unwitting sexual presence whose innocence seems to be a bait for Goldberg. True, her presence and what happens to her overnight illustrate Goldberg’s duplicity; it seems also that she represents some kind of ambiguous but menacing sexuality. There is something of a comic aspect to this Lulu, however. And it ties in, I think, with what I take to be Pinter’s cast-wide concern with vulnerability and the desperate stratagems people engage in to cover for themselves. Even the seductive Lulu turns out to be vulnerable. The only characters not in this, as you yourself observed in another context, is Petey, who risks nothing and so opens himself to nothing. If somebody gives him cereal, he makes it his business to like it. And so with all of life.

A dense, complex play, surely. And we’re going to have another one, in not entirely a different vein, when we see the Orton.

Friend: On the drive in today it occurred to me that Lulu is also needed to illustrate Goldberg’s duplicity. He may be conflicted about what he and McCann are doing to Stanley, but not about his messing with Lulu, in spite of his avowal of conven­tional morality. She accuses him, accurately, of using her. (When I think about it, his conventionality, too, is all about how to get what you want.)


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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