The Birthday Party

To open its 20th anniversary season, Appleseed Productions wryly throws its own party with this mounting of Harold Pinter’s darkly absurdist comedy.

To open its 20th anniversary season, Appleseed Productions wryly throws its own party with this mounting of Harold Pinter’s darkly absurdist comedy. Yet, the influential works of Pinter (1930- 2008) aren’t done much in these parts, with their frustrating yet literate dialogue and vaguely menacing characters as presumed stumbling blocks toward success. In fact, it took two credited co-directors, Lois Haas and John Brackett, to shape the production that is running on the floorboards at the Atonement Lutheran Church’s basement stage facility at 115 W. Glen Ave.

At a seaside boarding house, married owners Meg (Theresa Constantine) and Petey (Jonathan Weissberg) prattle on at breakfast about corn flakes and toast. This winding conversation of banality and boredom continues when their lone tenant Stanley (Michal Lepore), a shambling, bespectacled layabout, joins in. Disheveled in his bathrobe, Stanley scarcely conjures the image of the man he claims to be: a celebrated pianist who has played the world’s greatest halls.

Trouble looms when a visiting pair of threatening men, the chatty Goldberg (John Brackett) and the stoic McCann (CJ Young), take a room at the house for an overnight stay. They ask about Stanley and it’s obvious that all three have been acquainted elsewhere, but the audience is never fully clued in on their shared histories. Meanwhile, Meg proposes to throw a birthday party for Stanley, even though he protests that it’s not his birthday, and the new boarders are only too happy to help with the festivities. Guns are never drawn as Goldberg and McCann close in on their quarry, although a toy drum gets damaged along the way.

The Birthday Party, savaged by British critics after its 1958 debut, nearly killed off Pinter’s budding playwriting career. Yet it eventually became a stage classic, thanks to his novel usage of circuitous dialogue that often goes nowhere and the overall strangeness of his central characters. With home invasions in the news these days, the play takes on additional timeliness, albeit on a cerebral playing field. And the “Pinteresque” influence can be felt in cinematic pop culture; the Goldberg-McCann tandem could be kissing cousins to the chatty enforcers played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

birthdayappleseedThe play hasn’t been mounted locally in ages, and since there is only a forgotten 1968 movie adaptation by director William Friedkin floating around the DVD universe, Appleseed seizes the day with this offbeat production. The action is supposed to occur on the British seaside during the 1950s, but since Pinter’s droll dialogue can be so difficult to deliver, co-directors Haas and Brackett made the right call in avoiding the mastery of English accents. They adroitly stage the play’s escalating mind games, from a comically creepy bit of blind man’s buff to the cat-and-mousing interlude when Goldberg and McCann submit the hapless Stanley to a verbal interrogation that is larded with bizarre non sequiturs.

Pinter’s absurdist elements come early and often, such as a coquettish Meg informing Stanley that he can’t say the word “succulent” in front of a married woman, although the innuendos become more overt when Lulu (Sharon Sorkin), a trollop neighbor, comes calling. The performers all do well with the maddening material, with John Brackett’s Goldberg being the beneficiary of Pinter’s quotable dialogue, much of it drily amusing (he refers to his dour associate McCann as “the life of the party.”).

Brackett’s plummy voice, which often recalls Harold Peary’s old radio character from The Great Gildersleeve program, adds to the mock-sinister flavors of his teasing tormentor. In Appleseed’s Birthday Party, his insinuating turn certainly takes the cake.
This production runs through Sept. 28.

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