The Birthday Party

Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Aaron Snook

At the Chopin Theatre in Chicago
Produced by Signal Ensemble Theatre

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on August 9, 2008

This review contains spoilers.

There isn't only one way to interpret a Pinter play. Though Signal Ensemble's current production of The Birthday Party brings out the savory ambiguities in Pinter's script, the company focused their characterizations to steer in the direction of one particular interpretation.

Meg and Petey, an older couple, run a boarding house that currently has only one guest, Stanley, a surly, irresponsible, unkempt man in his thirties who claims to have been a professional pianist. A local young woman, Lulu, comes by the house from time to time to try wooing Stanley into having a date with her, even though he repeatedly declines. Two other guests eventually arrive, each one with a mien of the spurious. One of them is Goldberg, an aging Jewish man with a dictatorial bearing and a veneer of grinding politeness. His comrade is McCann, a younger Irishman with a short fuse who regularly but grudgingly yields to Goldberg's authority. Theirs is an uneasy alliance, though with the common purpose of pursuing Stanley -- and for reasons unknown to us. Whether they've come to punish him for a past transgression or to take him back to the sinister organization from which he fled, the question becomes irrelevant as the symbolism of these two characters, and that of the other four characters in the story, congeals out of the Kafkaesque mist.

Meg decides to throw a birthday party for Stanley, despite his denial that it's his birthday. Later, Goldberg and McCann interrogate Stanley, gradually ratcheting up their aggressiveness until he nearly breaks down. At the party that night, the two men's persecution of Stanley intensifies to the point that he loses his mind during a hostile game of blind man's buff and goes through the motions of strangling Meg and raping Lulu.

The following morning reveals that Goldberg and McCann have been emotionally pulverizing Stanley through the night, slowly but successfully turning him into an automaton: a well-groomed, properly dressed man with no voice or personality, who obeys his masters as a car does its driver. As they prepare to take Stanley away, Petey objects -- with touching sincerity but with too little vigor to dissuade them.

It's logical to treat Stanley as a representation of childhood and his two pursuers as the social factors that force us all to grow up. In such an interpretation, Stanley's spectacles, which are held back from him during the party, symbolize his "security blanket", something without which he feels helpless. As an adult, however, he no longer needs them; this is why McCann snaps his glasses in two once Stanley has "matured". However, Will Schutz and Philip Winston, in the roles of Goldberg and McCann, respectively, imbued their characters with such menace, such truculence, that it was difficult to sense any motivation apart from a driving indignation. And because society generally resents nonconformity more than it does immaturity, Schutz and Winston gave shape to a different metaphor, one in which Stanley symbolizes not childhood, but stubborn individualism -- more precisely, a refusal to submit to tradition.

In this perspective, Goldberg and McCann become abstractions of those forces that try to bring everyone into harmony with cultural convention. Schutz skillfully switched between harmless inanity and dangerous purposefulness, reflecting, I think, Pinter's point that the very social forces that reward the compliant will be equally ferocious toward the rebellious. Winston's McCann was a good deal less diplomatic and less patient, allowing him to effectively play the impetuous foil to Schutz' strategic thinker. Both Schutz and Winston created an ominous atmosphere from their first appearance, and each of them maintained the mysteriousness of his own character throughout the unfolding of this drama.

Playing Meg, Mary O'Dowd gave us a suitably vacuous woman who was oblivious to the consequential goings-on around her. She captured Meg as the symbol of willful naivete, of those who walk among us either unaware of the trouble around them or unwilling to acknowledge it. O'Dowd's performance was -- "exaggerated" is too strong a description -- quite focused on Meg's silliness. This created a strong contrast with Goldberg and McCann, accentuating their threatening behavior and highlighting the imminence of Stanley's doom.

In the role of Stanley, the archetypal social rebel, Joseph Stearns was more convincing with anxiety, panic, fear, and juvenile outbursts than he was with unheated dialogue. Stearns kept Stanley on the edge of sanity throughout the play, and his psychological withdrawal near the end was eerily believable. He and the two strangers played off each other smoothly, Stanley's individualism quickly slipping away under Goldberg and McCann's systematic brainwashing.

Vincent Lonergan maximized the sensitivity in his role as Petey, who is arguably Pinter's metaphor for those who have the willingness, but not the strength, to confront the uglier side of tradition. Lonergan's finest moment came at the end as Petey desperately tries to stop Goldberg and McCann from abducting Stanley, or at least to extract from them a promise to find Stanley the medical help he clearly needs. Lonergan struck a sympathetic balance among his character's suspicion about what was happening, his desire to intervene, and the disappointing reality of his physical limitations.

Why our playwright chose Orthodox Judaism (Goldberg) and Irish Catholicism (McCann) to represent the forces of conformity, I'll leave to Pinter scholars. Nevertheless, this duo of symbolic cultural oppression gave us antagonistic traditions cooperating with each other, an interesting and unexpected interplay. Furthermore, both traditions subtly implied an awareness that their campaign was morally questionable; Schutz and Winston brought this out through occasional pauses in response to the distastefulness of what they were doing to Stanley. In fact, Goldberg's frequent reminiscences about the "good old days", along with his mantra "follow the line", seemed to be an attempt to keep his own psyche in tune with his mission, as his reluctance to carry it out waxed and waned.

Before closing, I must ask why the director, or the dialect coach, chose not to nix the faux British and Irish accents. They were inconsistent and distracting, as such accents often are when American actors attempt them. This play would have been no less respectable had the company adopted and refined whatever accents were more natural to the players.