Encore Michigan

Mind The Gap’s ‘The Birthday Party’ rattles audiences sixty years after its debut

Review August 17, 2019 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–When Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party opened in 1958, it closed in about a week. But had The Times of London reviewer managed to get his review up before it closed, it might have met a different fate.

After the reviewer proclaimed the play, which took many reviewers and patrons aback, breakthrough, more directors, young actors and university programs took notice, and it has been produced in numerous languages and countries these last six decades. But not here in Southeast Michigan in many years if ever.

The Birthday Party is considered “Theatre of The Menace.” Characters are at risk and the story line is seen through a gauzy scrim of uncertainty. Lack of total clarity is, of itself, menacing. And that is Pinter’s stock and trade. Audiences spend more time wondering what is going on with some of the odd characters in this story and trying to sort out exactly what is happening and why than following along a clean story arc.

There are themes in the play, brought to audiences at Theatre Nova in this “guest production” by Mind The Gap Productions, about mind control, malice, hazy identities, ambiguous mental illness that comes back into other later Pinter plays. The playwright was part of the theater of the absurd movement led by Samuel Beckett, Pinter and Edward Albee that vigorously tossed aside conventions of storytelling and stagecraft of the day in a quest to rattle patrons out of their velvet tufted chairs. This play comes out of a movement to shake things up.

The Birthday Party opens in relative calm. Meg, the landlady of this hostel (Fran Potasnik) and husband Petey (Larry Rusinky) are eating breakfast. And they appear as a typical fifty-something British couple at their off-the-track seaside boarding house, the husband barely interested in his wife’s nattering over the corn flakes. We soon find out that Stanley (Alexander Trice), a long-term boarder given to sleeping late, is a strange presence in the house. One of the aspects of the story that gets the play off to an intentionally, by Pinter, bumpy start is the open question over whether Meg is actually mentally impaired or just quirky, and then the bi-play between her and Stanley that seems to toggle between motherly and flirty.

Then there is the question of just who Goldberg (Adrian Diffey) and his cohort McCann (Alan Madlane) really are? They are visitors. But from where and for what purpose? They clearly know Stanley, but from where? And Stanley is not who we are told he is early on. So, then who is he?

There is a scene that happens in the dark at the end of Act 1 that could be troubling to some. Stanley appears to have done something inappropriate and unwelcome to the character of Lulu, a nubile visitor to the house. Elsewhere in the play, Goldberg and Lulu cavort while Lulu is the worse the wear for a few drinks. Director Adrian Diffey navigates these exchanges very well to avoid squirm given the vast difference in the characters’ ages. And some of what takes place happens off stage. But let’s remember that Pinter’s intent was to create menacing energy in the story. He succeeds and so do these actors for most of the play.

The Goldberg character has two sides, civil but duplicitous. Polite, but menacing. It’s a difficult play to watch without whispering questions and offering theories in the ear of your seat-mate. Intermission is not so much a time to go to the bathroom as it is a time to compare notes or Google the play.

Trice inhabits the mysterious Stanley extremely well, keeping us off balance, and displaying a useful range from attacker to victim. He will make you feel uncomfortable, but that is his function. Rusinsky does not have a lot to do, but what he does do is spot on. He manages the tricky combination of unquestionably loving Meg, while at the same time not being very interested in what she has to say.

Potasnik’s Meg is fraught with possibilities and imbalances, and she delivers on that. She plays Meg throughout the story as someone who may or may not be on her meds, occupying a tense grey space between being all there…and not. Madlane turns a second-banana role into something much more substantial than that, off-setting Goldberg’s edgy politeness and propriety with a kind of road-weary enforcer, and someone with whom you would not leave your child. Ms. Cook has a lot to figure out on stage in her character as Lulu, who isn’t quite sure why she is at this party, it seems, where she meets an awkward fate. Her performance, though, works in this ensemble of raging ambiguity.

Besides deftly playing mystery-man Goldberg, Diffey has also done a splendid job of set design. A Brit himself, there is terrific attention to details, from the selection of wallpaper to the rugs on rugs, the wall-hangings that would have been typical of a 1960 lower-class family, and the condiments on the table including the HP Brown Sauce. There is also depth of the set we don’t always find in this performance space, with a doorway to a visible and set-dressed kitchen, the serving window from the kitchen into the dining area so typical of British flats, and a hallway leading to a stairwell to the second floor.

Pinter is a compelling playwright who gives audiences much to discuss. He even wrote a poem later in life about this play. In ”A View of the Party,” Pinter gives us clues to the shared malevolence of Goldberg and McCann, who, as intruders, ”imposed upon the room/A dislocation and doom.”

The Birthday Party is not a production of TheatreNova, which has made its mark in its five years as a company bringing new work to Michigan and almost always choosing very good plays to bring to its stage. This is a guest production it did not produce. But this edgy, controversial, sixty-year old play in its space is just as relevant to today’s world as it was to the British scene all those decades ago. And it’s just as controversial.

Pinter lets the audience decide how controversial and why. It will be different for everyone who sees it.