Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Birthday Party
The Nobel laureate's most enduring play debuted about a week before I was born, in 1958. But I had never seen The Birthday Party till now, and never knew it could be a sort of rosetta stone for a genre that engulfed me through my early manhood. This new production at Albion Theatre generates Hitchcockian suspense, merging with (what was soon to become) 1960s counter-culture. Director Suki Peters gives us a mysterious two-hour and fifteen minute staging of The Birthday Party that's often perfectly silly or impressively awful, by turns.
The script was written in 1957, before the massive public uprisings against Vietnam, and in Selma, and over Watergate. And yet it seems to predict the same barbaric mindset in our government's reaction to any heated public resistance.
I suppose I first learned of the Pinter style through syndicated reruns of British TV shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "The Prisoner," and (domestically) through the comedy albums of The Firesign Theatre, which seemed at least partly inspired by the playwright. If you grew up on all that, seeing The Birthday Party is a little like getting to meet your birth parents for the first time.
The setting is usually described as a modest rooming house on the southwest coast of England, not far from London. At lights up, we begin with a sort of human puppet show featuring the proprietors, affable Petey and daffy Meg (Robert Ashton and Teresa Doggett) starting their day. Stanley Weber (evasive Ted Drury), their long-term boarder, comes downstairs to learn that a pair of men (Chuck Winning and Nick Freed) have shown up to stay at this obscure little house/hotel as well.
That's when genuine danger fills the air, twenty minutes in. As Stanley realizes he's finally been hunted down.
There's an odd sense in this new production that we are programmed to feel guilt, for no other reason than to control a pacified society, which may be on the brink of a man-made Armageddon and can therefore brook no insurrection. The urgency that comes with all that allows for the pursuit of a runaway criminal at any cost. The new lodgers, unsettling men in black named Goldberg and McCann, come for Stanley with the solemnity of a pair of wary priests.
Near the end they pummel him with nonsense, though, like Latin at an exorcism, to break him down. Except it's a kind of bureaucratic/patriotic double-speak, an Orwellian comedy of the condemned.
Be all that as it may, delightful and resourceful Summer Baer completes the cast as Lulu, a neighbor girl who seems like a cartoonish "type" from the angry young man school of theater, clad in her "Alice In Wonderland" blue dress and white skirt by costumer Tracey Newcomb. Lulu's presence sparks a basic instinct in Goldberg (Mr. Winning), adding to the suspense, and even to a low-grade kind of horror. And yet Pinter's dialog stands the test of time, in its unyielding style, as she discovers an inner fire to stand up for herself.
Goldberg's mysterious government agency remains implacable in the gripping story. And we realize that individual freedoms, like Stanley's or Lulu's, are little more than the disappearing ice in a glass of cola to apparatchiks facing some unknown, existential threat. In the end, the ice is gone, and only the harsh chemicals remain to be gulped down.
The Birthday Party runs through March 26, 2023, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand (a block north of Lindell Blvd.), St. Louis MO. For more information please visit www.albiontheatrestl.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):