Party on, Pinter! ACT throws a Birthday bash

Birthday Party 3
Stanley (Firdous Bamji) plays his new drum as Meg (Judith Ivey) listens with glee in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne

There’s a lot to love about American Conservatory Theater’s The Birthday Party, a funny, slightly freaky Harold Pinter. The cast is uniformly strong, director Carey Perloff (essaying her last directorial effort as ACT’s artistic director) deftly balances the unease and the humor.

But for me, the joy, the electrical charge, the bright light of the production is Judith Ivey. She’s slightly daffy as Meg, who runs a boarding house with her laconic husband (Dan Hiatt), but she comes to life in the presence of her sole boarder (Firdous Bamji), with whom she has a flirtatious/motherly relationship. She’s also the life of a birthday party that shouldn’t be happening. And she’s not someone you want making your breakfast.

Ivey is such an absolute delight she elevates the entire production.

I reviewed The Birthday Party for Here’s an excerpt.

The play’s sense of imminent threat gives it (sadly) a timeless feeling. Ball’s set and Candice Donnelly’s prosaic costumes feel neither current nor specifically dated. This is a world of contrasts, and Perloff’s finely tuned production makes the most of this. There’s a feeling of the past built into the walls of the boarding house (heightened by Robert Hand’s stark lighting design), and yet everything feels of the moment, a big laugh will be followed by a chill, and a goofy interplay will suddenly turn threatening and deeply serious.

Read the full review here.

Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party continues through Feb. 4 at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

To Sirs with love: Pinpointing Pinter at Berkeley Rep

No Man's Land 1
Ian McKellen (left) is Spooner and Patrick Stewart is Hirst in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Below: Shuler Hensley (left) is Briggs and Billy Crudup is Foster, the two men who are running Hirst’s life for him. Photos courtesy of

What pure theatrical pleasure it is to spend two hours in the baffling world of playwright Harold Pinter with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart as our guides. These two fascinating craftsmen, under the direction of the equally astute Sean Mathias, are a show unto themselves in the choices they make, the characters they draw and the relationships they forge with each other and with the audience. No Man’s Land may be about some sort of limbo between the vibrancy of youth and the incapacity of old age (or, more simply, between living life and just waiting for death), but in truth, it’s a masterful workshop in which gifted thespians practice their craft.

Pinter’s play itself is an enigma (as so many Pinter plays seem to be). What is actually going on? Well, two older gentlemen, Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen) have met at a pub near London’s Hampstead Heath and have returned to Hirst’s well-appointed home for a few (dozen) nightcaps. From appearances, which is all we have to go on for a while, it would seem the men are from different worlds. Hirst is immaculately turned out in a well-tailored suit and tie. Spooner, on the other hand, is a vision of shabbiness. His striped suit is ill fitting, his shirt cuffs are frayed, he’s wearing cheap sneakers and his socks are filthy. Could Spooner be homeless? Yes he could. But he has a certain dignity about him and an ability to create an illusion of educated entitlement that doesn’t make him seem totally out of place in the sparsely furnished room of Hirst’s manse (the note-perfect set and costume designs are by Stephen Brimson Lewis).

The two men drink and talk – well, Spooner does most of the talking – and the mystery just intensifies as they consume whiskey, or “the great malt which wounds.” Spooner brags that he’s a great man of “intelligence and perception” and to prove it, he is constantly fishing pencils out of his coat pocket and punctuating and underlining the air.

When Hirst does talk, his words carry weight. “Tonight, my friend, you find me in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run,” he says. To which, Spooner responds: “A metaphor. Things are looking up.” There’s an uneasy darkness in this play, but also sparks of humor.

Hirst grunts a great deal and withdraws into a state of near immobility. Could be the drink or perhaps a more nefarious condition. At one point, Hirst is on the ground and manages to crawl out of the room. “I’ve seen that before,” Spooner says. “The exit through the door by way of belly on floor.”

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Spooner is alone and awkward for a bit until we meet Hirst’s henchmen, Foster (Billy Crudup) and Briggs (Shuler Hensley). Foster claims to be Hirst’s son, but there’s no real confirmation of that. Then he says he’s Hirst’s secretary. Briggs is sort of a bodyguard/man Friday, but then again, he and Foster may be con men or criminals taking advantage of Hirst’s elevated state (he’s apparently a revered man of letters with enough money to merit a meeting with a financial adviser). Or they may really be taking care of Hirst as he slides into oblivion.

Nothing is for sure in this world other than Hirst’s curved drawing room looks like a mausoleum, Hirst himself is dealing with something resembling dementia and Spooner is looking for a way to improve his sorry lot in later life.

What is certain is that these for actors and director Mathias have delved deep into the play and found a way to make it come across as a slice of off-kilter life. You don’t have to know what’s going on or what’s real or true to appreciate that these four characters have layers and connections and interesting relationships with life (and each other).

There’s a scene in Act 2 with Stewart and McKellen at the breakfast table that is so beguiling, so full of a shared past that may be completely invented, that your jaw just drops in awe. Not even the arrival of paramedics to deal with a medical emergency in the rear of the orchestra on opening night could divert the audience’s attention away from the stage.

Stewart rages and suffers and struts, but McKellen walks away with the play. His Spooner is so finely tuned, so sharply etched it’s hard to watch anyone else on stage. And he’s funny, hilarious really, in ways that call to mind great comics of the silent era (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd). Watch him pouring a whiskey for Hirst while juggling his own glass and the bottle. Or swooping down to tie his ratty shoelaces. But there’s also, under the posturing and the comic flourishes, something so desperate, so despairing in Spooner. There’s a lot of beautiful language in No Man’s Land, and McKellen, even more than any of his superb co-stars, lifts it to lyrical, meaningful heights. “No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent,” Spooner says. Beautiful, abstract, poetic.

After Berkeley, No Man’s Land heads to Broadway, where it will join Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the same four actors in rotating rep. On some days, you’ll be able to see both plays – hard to imagine a more joyously mind-blowing theatrical experience than that. Pinter, Beckett, Stewart and McKellen. As Hirst says at the end of the play, “I’ll drink to that.”

[bonus interview]
I sat down with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart during a rehearsal break at Berkeley Rep. Read about it here.

Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land continues through Aug. 31 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $50-$135 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit Good luck getting tickets.

Sirs Ian and Patrick in conversation

Patrick StewartIan McKellen
Knights of the realm: Patrick Stewart (left, photo by Robert Ascroft) and Ian McKellen (photo by Sarah Dunn) bring Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land to Berkeley Repertory Theatre before taking it to Broadway, where it will run in rotating rep with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to have to spend an hour with two of England’s finest: Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart. Though more famous from TV and film than for their extraordinary stage careers (on both sides of the Atlantic), the two journeymen actors are giving up the sci-fi/fantasy limelight to return to their first love: the stage.

They are currently on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land co-starring Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. (Good luck getting a ticket; they’re awfully hard to come by, as you might expect.)

I interviewed McKellen and Stewart for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the full story here (subscription may be required).

Here’s my favorite part of the interview when the actors talk about the original 1975 production of No Man’s Land starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson:

“I saw the original production of ‘No Man’s Land’ in London starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson three times in one week,” Stewart says. “I couldn’t get enough. I’d have gone again if I’d had the money. It was the brilliance of the writing. I don’t think there’s anything quite like this play. I have been quoting bits of the play for years that I remembered simply from being in the audience.”

McKellen also saw that 1975 production and says Gielgud, whose role he is playing, left a lasting impression – maybe too lasting.

“I feel like I could do the whole performance as John Gielgud,” McKellen says. “Then I wouldn’t be feeling half so tired as I am trying not to be John Gielgud.”

“Ian had a bit of a meltdown in rehearsal today,” Stewart interjects. “He thought Gielgud had possessed him, which was not the case at all.”

Stewart is mostly resisting re-creating Richardson’s performance, but he does mimic the late great British actor every time he pours a drink onstage.

“I’m allowing myself one moment of homage when I say, ‘Good Lord, did you really?’ like Richardson,” Stewart says with gusto. “Richardson also wore dazzling blue socks under a silver suit. I’d like to do that if our designer can find the right socks.”

Ian and Patrick
Photo by Jason Bell

Here’s an exchange that didn’t make it into the final article.

McKellen: The first time I remember an actual conversation with Patrick, we were in America. You’d just been offered a chance at Star Trek.
Stewart: Yes. It was that week. I had been given from Monday lunch until Friday lunch to make a decision. I was staying with a friend and you came over for dinner.
McKellen: You asked me what I thought you should do, and I said, “Think very carefully.”
Stewart: You were reserved and cautious.
McKellen: It wasn’t that the material wasn’t worth doing. It was just the prospect of six years living outside your own country.
Stewart: That’s what terrified me about the part. As is now part of the Star Trek mythology, I spent those four days talking to everybody I knew with any experience of Hollywood. Without exception, they said that I shouldn’t worry about those six years. They said I’d be lucky to make it through the first season because you cannot resurrect an iconic series. I remember a well-established Hollywood writer telling me to take and make money for the first time (which was true), get a suntan, meet girls and go home. I was married at the time, so I didn’t meet any girls.

Who’s taking care of Pinter’s crafty Caretaker?

Caretaker 1
Jonathan Pryce (right) is the tramp Davies and Alex Hassell is the bully Mick in director Christopher Morahan’s beguiling revival of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Pryce (left) and Alan Cox as Aston discuss raindrops falling on Davies’ head. Photos by Shane Reid

There are all kinds of battles going on in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker – brother vs. brother, brothers vs. the tramp, the tramp vs. the truth, loneliness vs. despair, etc. – but the really interesting battle is between menace and humor. Surprisingly, at least in the sharply etched production now at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season, humor wins.

The first big hit of Pinter’s career in 1960, The Caretaker is an enigmatic game of existentialist proportions. It’s one of those “nothing is happening/everything is happening” exercises in carefully contained drama. The characters remain mysterious because Pinter, as their creator, chooses to divulge so very little about them and disallows them from sharing anything directly with one another. Such vague – call it purposefully restrained – writing served Beckett well, and sure enough, The Caretaker has ascended to modern classic status.

Pinter can annoy me faster than just about any other playwright if his work falls into the wrong hands. Happily, this production, which originated at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse before moving on to London’s West End and a world tour, feels lived in and full of life (at least as much life as Pinter will allow amid the portentous silences and lonely drifting).

The reason for this welcome liveliness rests with the creative team: director Christopher Morahan and actors Jonathan Pryce, Alan Cox and Alex Hassell. This quartet works effectively as a team to pull the most they can from Pinter’s text, including some medium-size laughs and the ever-present menace of an older brother who’s never really gone, even when he has exited the room (set designer Eileen Diss has provided, amid the clutter of this dingy dwelling, walls that reveal secrets about who’s on the other side).

Caretaker 2

Two brothers, bully Mick (Hassell), the younger, and brain-damaged Aston (Cox), the elder, don’t seem overly close or affectionate when the play begins. In fact, it seems like they have very little relationship at all. Mick bops around London doing whatever it is he does – playing games, being a landlord, torturing people – and Aston, in his tie and sweater vest, keeps himself to one leaky room, where he collects things from off the street. When he expands his collection to include a tramp, his older brother takes notice, and the games begin.

The tramp, known alternately as Davies and Jenkins (the brilliant Pryce), is a slippery fella. He’ll agree with whatever makes you happy or whatever he thinks will render him the greatest return. Offer him a pair of shoes to replace the shoddy slippers he’s wearing and he may refuse on the ground they’re too small or the laces are the wrong color. Offer him a bed, and he may end up complaining that the wind and rain coming through the nearby window disturbed his sleep and how about he sleeps in your bed instead?

Davies, in the kind of desperate craftiness that has become the norm for his life on the street, tries to play brother against brother, but that doesn’t work. Both end up turning on him in different ways, even after they’ve offered shabby hospitality and the promise of a care-taking job. Each of these men desperately needs to connect with someone (especially the brothers to each other), but they’re all so walled into their own personal dramas that they just slam up against one another repeatedly. There’s one moment of connection, between the brothers, that involves a shared smile, and though that should be a warm (if not fuzzy) moment, it turns out to be chilling.

Each of the actors is superb, but Pryce is mesmerizing. On the page, there’s nothing really likeable about Davies, but Pryce finds depths that even Pinter may not have suspected. Pryce’s Davies may be crazy or he may be completely sane and playing a game. He’s a racist and a liar, a con man and a cruel friend. But he’s also sad. So sad. And desperate. There’s fear and cockiness in equal measure, and the best part of Pryce’s performance is that we feel all of that. This isn’t a showy performance at all because it seems perfectly scaled to the play. Pryce is so memorable because he seems to have disappeared so completely behind Davies scruffy beard and ever-shifting face.

So much is made of Pinter’s silences that it’s hard not to laugh when yet another power card is being played in the game between the three men. Someone is being banished with a charge of, “You make too much noise.” It all comes down to that, after the scuffling, the thwarted efforts to connect, to silence.

[bonus interviews]
I interviewed Jonathan Pryce and director Christopher Morahan for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker continues through April 22 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $31-$100 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

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The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne


The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

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The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.



Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

New seasons: TheatreFIRST, Broadway by the Bay

TheaterFIRST, under the new artistic direction of Dylan Russell, has announced its 15th anniversary season, which will run from January to June 2009 and will include a staged reading series and a Harold Pinter revival.

The season opens with a staged reading series from mid-January to mid-February. Plays and location still to be announced, but the readings will be at 2 p.m. Sundays.

The centerpiece of the season is Pinter’s Old Times featuring L. Peter Callender, a veteran Bay Area actor who last performed with TheatreFIRST in World Music. Old Times runs April 2 through May 3 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

Call 510-436-5085 or visit for information.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, under the leadership of artistic director Brooke Knight and executive director Jim Gardia, has also announced its new season — its 44th — which begins in April of 2009 and concludes the following November. Here’s how the season shakes down:
Crazy for You, a revamped Gershwin musical, runs April 2-19.
The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, dances July 16-Aug. 2
The Full Monty, a Broadway musical based on a spunky British film, disrobes Sept. 17-Oct. 4
Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman, starring Jason Graae (right), runs Nov. 5-8

Performances are in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo. Season subscriptions are $90-$152 until Nov. 16, when prices change to $100-$164. Single tickets also go on sale Nov. 16. Call 650-579-5565 or visit

Befuddling `Birthday’

The Aurora Theatre Company’s The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter has just been extended through March 11 in Berkeley. That’s good news for Pinter fans. It also gives us more time to figure out just what the heck that show is about.

To that end, and with her permission, I’d like to share with you an e-mail I received from Susan Dunn. She and her husband, Jeff, formulated a theory. Please note how well-written this missive is. And then play along. Contribute your own theory about what Pinter is up to with The Birthday Party. There are no wrong answers. Pinter himself says he doesn’t even know. Note: if you haven’t seen the show, there are spoilers ahead.

We saw the The Birthday Party last night and I think my husband nailed a great way to figure out the play — not that there is only one way. But you might see the genius in this play through his interpretation.

Stanley is everyman, and in act one, he is a child. He sleeps late, has no responsibilities, and is cared for by the couple as though he was their child. And he acts like a child, being wilful, demanding, mercurial, etc. Won’t even get up to get his breakfast plate. Meg can’t help but keep caring for him (since he is the child), but like many children, he drives her crazy. Also, in Act 1, when Lulu comes in, he is not yet sexually mature, so he shows a lot of interest in Lulu, but he doesn’t know how to get her (and maybe even what “get her” means at that stage). He is afraid of the two men, and we don’t know why, but when we realize what they are up to, we know why Stanley is afraid, and hides from them like a child. At the end of the first act, he gets his gift — a drum, and does what many spoiled kids do, uses it in a way that torments his parent (Meg).

In Act 2, Stanley starts to mature. The two men arrive, and he can’t escape them They represent growing up. Goldberg is the authoritative, confident and persuasive adult figure that represents a concept of “following the rules” and achieving success. His success is emphasized by McCann who is his henchman who pays “fealty” to Goldberg in many ways throughout the play, through deference, through blowing in his mouth (representing that a power person can make an underling do ANYTHING), through following orders no matter what. So the strangers are there to carry Stanley through to maturity. He resists, but he can’t escape. Stanley is dependent on his glasses, or he THINKS he is. But the glasses are really like a Blankie or a thumb. They are what he needs to stay a child. When McCann breaks the glasses, its because Stanley won’t be needing them anymore as an adult. During the birthday party, Stanley has his last moment of resistance, rebellion and victory when he finds Lulu in the dark and has sex with her on the table. His face at the end of that scene shows Goldberg that he has bested him…. for the moment.

In Act 3, which suffers because we don’t see much of Stanley, he is being educated (school?) by McCann who is upstairs in his room doing a lot of talking. This represents the brainwashing that we all go through to leave the careless world of childhood behind and assume tradition, responsibility, respectability, and in Pinter’s view, inanity. When Stanley emerges, he is a brainwashed zombie. Goldberg and McCann list all the wonderful things he will have in his new world, but in Pinter’s view, there is really a huge loss. He has lost his will and his soul. Goldberg asks him what he thinks, and his croaking response shows that now that he is brainwashed, he can’t really THINK anymore, although he can get through the mindless world of being a working adult (drone). When he puts on the glasses, they don’t illuminate anything for Stanley. They are only lenses now, not the artifacts of childhood, freedom and power which a child exerts on the adult world. That aspect of the glasses is lost forever. Petey’s last words underscore this view of the play when he says to Stanley “Don’t let them tell you what to do”. The irony of course is that its too late – both for Petey and for Stanley.

I found this a very satisfactory way to look at The Birthday Party, and it made more sense to me than thinking that the 2 men were the agents of death, which is another interpretation. What do you think?

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