Way back in the 1980s, as a theatre arts major at my University, I was cast in a production of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. My advisor felt this was a good experience for us all, doing such a challenging play, stretching out creative muscles. To this day I believe she was absolutely right!
Still when I learned City Garage was doing the same play I eagerly anticipated seeing it done right, but folks better than a clutch of talented twenty-somethings with little real experience.
Yep. I was right. This production knocked it out of the park. Pinter can be a strange writer, and it isn't immediately clear to some what his plays are about. This one focuses on an older married couple--Meg (Peggy Flood) and Petey (Andy Kallok)--who run a tiny boarding house in a seaside town. They have one boarder, Stanley (Isaac Strackonis), a surly young man whom Meg clearly has something of a crush upon, a fact he uses in some mean but hardly psychopathic or even very extreme ways. He's the big mystery at the beginning. Why is he here? Where is he from? And why, oh why, does he react so strongly to the random gossip of someone asking about some gentlemen asking about letting the other room? He ends up denying such men exist, could exist, evidently in his mind they dare not exist so they must not!
Under the direction of Frederique Michel, all this set up wonderfully brings out that sense of mystery, that sense that Stanley does not belong here, that his behavior does not match this situation. The pretty neighbor/visitor Lulu (Savannah Schakett), for example. Something about the way she flirts with him, or more accurately the way he responds, feels very off. Something about the whole situation feels as there's a missing piece, some secret that might explain it all.
Then, the gentlemen do arrive. Goldberg (Troy Dunn) and McCann (Gifford Irvine) show up while everyone else is out. Is this the place? Yes. This job is a little different. Still Goldberg assures McCann he personally chose him. There'll be no trouble. Not really. McCann feels jittery but says he'll calm down once they begin. Goldberg it seems has a certain "position." All rather vague, with hints of...well, an organization of some kind, a job that must be done. Pretty soon we start to believe these are not their real names at all, but rather aliases. That sense grows as the story proceeds.
Stanley's reaction upon seeing them confirms something we already suspect--one way or another, the "job" is Him. He doesn't come to pieces, cry, beg, or even run. Rather, he tries to bluff and/or negotiate, even insisting there's been some kind of misunderstanding. But neither Goldberg nor McCann rise to any of this.
Meg of course welcomes them with open arms when she gets home. Goldberg proves a charmer in the presence of a woman. Stanley goes back to his room, while the Gentlemen persuade Meg that Stanley's birthday is nigh and they need to throw him a party.
Hence the title.
And ultimately what almost surreal, deeply uncomfortable on many levels the build up and then the actual events of that birthday party prove to be. Anytime these men are alone with Stanley, they grind on him in a variety of strange and ultimately distracting ways. They clearly mean him no good. He recognizes who they are, or at least who they represent, and is terrified. Yet no one actually reveals any details. Ever. I felt certain the actors had some precise idea of what lay behind all this, but it is never quite revealed. A hint or two about Ireland, but that might be misdirection.
Because this entire play focuses on fear. Fear in many if not all its many avatars. Of death or revenge or punishment of some kind. Of failure. Of living on the edge with nothing but luck and personal wits to keep from falling. Of aging and making mistakes. In one case, fear of learning too much, of having some illusions stripped away, losing a kind of innocence as it were. Terror of one little mistake, and maybe someone noticing it. An aching fear of realizing something unsuspected, against which one is impotent. Fear of all things malign and inevitable, from decay and time to consequences from the past.
Ultimately how does it matter exactly who Goldberg and McCann are, in their terrifying reality, each of them also afraid not that it matters to their victims? What was it Lulu learned that night with Goldberg? Details are hardly important, just what we see of her the next morning, self-righteously trying to blame others for a glimpse she got of herself (although, to be sure, she too was a victim). For that matter, it cannot matter what Stanley did. He knows. He reacts to it, to his situation, and crumbles under the weight. That is what we see, made all the more vivid because the context remains hidden. In the best horror stories the monsters stays in the shadows after all.
The entire cast escorts us through a maze of monsters, expertly making our skins crawl without once needing any masked killer to spring out with a plastic set of claws. By stirring our imaginations, the terror ends up being very personal--and thus, fascinating.
The Birthday Party plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm until Saturday July 23, 2022 at City Garage, 2525 Michigan Avenue. Building T1, Santa Monica CA 90404.