Review: Aurora’s “The Birthday Party”

(opened Feb. 1, 2007)

Actors sizzle, plot fizzles in Aurora’s `Birthday Party’
two and 1/2 stars A well-made muddle

There’s an old saw about a tree falling in the woods, and if there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a noise — you know the one.

Well, what happens when a play falls into a pit of murky inscrutability and there are plenty of people around to hear it? Does the noise even matter?

That’s the question surrounding Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which opened Thursday at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Artistic director Tom Ross, who has found success with such signature Pinter works as The Homecoming and Betrayal, now tries his hand at Pinter’s first produced work.

Since the play’s first London performance in 1958, which was not well received, Pinter has gone on to become, well, Pinter — one of contemporary drama’s most revered playwrights. He won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature and has influenced generations of writers.
But what to make of this first effort, which, though entertaining, may be too obtuse for its own good.

In this nearly 2 1/2-hour drama, Pinter deliberately withholds details to the most basic dramatic questions, which is sort of a cheat when it comes to creating dramatic tension. Then he makes us question the details we’re given, so there’s absolutely no point in trying to make sense of any of it.

So without plot or characters to trust, what is there?

In Ross’ sturdy production, we get some menace, some horror and, best of all, some marvelous Bay Area actors doing interesting things, even if they’re all ultimately just spinning their well-trained wheels.

The story, such as it is, takes place in a dingy boardinghouse on the English seaside (Richard Olmsted’s highly wall-papered set is perfect). Meg (Phoebe Moyer) and Petey (Chris Ayles) run the place, though to call it a boarding house is a stretch because for at least the past year, they’ve only had one tenant.

His name is Stanley, and when he makes his entrance down the steep staircase, he gets a laugh. As played by the masterful James Carpenter(above), Stanley is so run down and cranky, his woebegone appearance is a few bedrags below bedraggled.

Amid the normal morning chatter about sour milk and news of the day, two men in suits arrive: Goldberg (Julian Lopez-Morillas) and McCann (Michael Ray Wisely(below left), possessor of the best bushy eyebrows in three counties).

We don’t know why they’re their, but we know it’s mysterious and it has something to do with Stanley, who probably isn’t the concert pianist he says he is.

Apparently there’s been a “betrayal of the organization,” which leads the men to put Stanley through a bizarre interrogation (complete with hyper-dramatic lighting by Christopher Studley). But that’s not as bizarre as the actual birthday party thrown by Meg for Stanley (who, true to form, swears it’s not his birthday).

A game of blind man’s bluff, with special guest Lulu (Emily Jordan), ends with the lights out, violence and sexual mayhem.

There are non-sequiturs everywhere. For example, Goldberg, who makes much of being Jewish but has probably stolen his identity from someone else, invites Lulu, whom he calls “a big, bouncy girl,” to sit on his lap. She says, in her nonstop flirtatious way, “Can I tell you something? I trust you.” To which Goldberg replies, “Gesundheit.”

There’s a lot of sly humor in The Birthday Party, and that’s something that comes through in this production. Moyer is especially adept at pulling laughs from Meg’s cluelessness.

But around about Act 3, and after the second intermission, the fun of this Party begins to wane, and the weirdness takes over. The plot becomes a water balloon bumbling its way through a pinball machine, and Pinter’s notions of power and abuse and the horror of conformity as a measure of success only go so far before we lose track of the darkness and are left with absurdity instead.

For information about Aurora’s The Birthday Party, visit

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