If anyone out there still thinks the plays of Harold Pinter have to be difficult, boring, incomprehensible, or inaccessible in order to be appreciated, he or she should try the splendid McCarter Theater production of “The Birthday Party.” Under Emily Mann’s dramatically detailed, briskly paced direction (so rare with Pinter), a top-drawer cast is bringing out as much as any Pinter fan could want in this now classic “comedy of menace.” The hidden terrors, the abundant, bristling dark humor and the tantalizing psychological enigmas that dwell in this vastly underrated play, originally produced in London in 1958 and first brought to New York in 1967, are all craftily considered.
Possibly more horrifying in our own minds than in what Pinter actually serves us with his crisp, characteristically fragmented dialogue, the cunning plot provides as many moments of laughter as chills. Although set designer Eugene Lee’s evocation of a cluttered boarding house in a seaside town looks barely suitable for transient guests, it is a hoot and it doesn’t stop Meg, the proprietress (Barbara Bryne), from proudly spouting, “It’s on the list” to Stanley (Henry Stram), her only guest who isn’t, however, above putting the conspicuously dilapidated dwelling down a peg or two.
The play centers on two menacing men who psychologically terrorize a virtual recluse, a former amusement pier pianist who is residing there. While Stanley is somewhat obliquely victimized by the two darkly evasive men, the dowdy Meg is childishly self-absorbed by the daily spoken and behavioral redundancies she shares with Petey (James A. Stephens), her complacent husband. The play, already famous for its virtuoso contrasting of the obvious with the subliminal could be dismissed as gimmicky and pretentious were it not so cannily constructed. One minute we are freely laughing at Pinter’s wry way with words and the next we are filled with disturbed thought by what he omits.
Both Meg and Petey address their daily concerns with superficial but not altogether oblivious responses to the changing moods. Their amusing well-aimed performances handily balance the play’s more nightmarish moments. Also on target are Allan Corduner and Randall Newsome as Goldberg and McCann, the brain and brawn respectively of menace. Goldberg is short and spiffily dressed and McCann is tall and wears a leather jacket. The leggy Charlotte Parry is a twit of a Lulu (or perhaps a lulu of a twit?), the flirtatious easy mark who gets more than she bargained for at the party.
Although the who, what, where and when(s) are purposely ambiguous in “The Birthday Party” they are made more so by dialogue that gleefully toys with contradictions. It’s hard not to chuckle as Goldberg keeps referring to himself by a different name. Some of the characters’ actions appear credible even as they conspiratorially build upon an incredulous logic of their own. Meg insists that everyone celebrate Stanley’s birthday despite that fact that he denies it is his birthday.
Enough has been written and said about “Pinter style” to define its deconstructive dramatic values as being grounded primarily in menace and fear. It is even clearer now in the wake of Pinter’s largely political and provocative address in response to be being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 that his theme for “The Birthday Party,” and many of his later plays, concerns our need to seek a safe haven from a corrupting, polluting and vengeful world.
As the reclusive, vulnerable Stanley, Stram is no stranger to McCarter, having appeared in “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Wonderful Tennessee.” More importantly he is no stranger to fulfilling the needs of a strange and psychologically complex work such as last season’s Michael John LaChiusa’s “See What I Wanna See,” at the Public Theater. Those familiar with this amazing, versatile actor may not recognize him in the wig he wears. But his deeply focused, unsettlingly taut portrayal makes you unable to take your eyes off him as one of Pinter’s most enigmatically poignant characters.
Corduner, who may be familiar to you for his role as Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan film bio “Topsy-Turvy,” is a brilliant study in chilling inscrutability, as the unpredictably violent Goldberg.
Costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s collaboration with director Mann to help to define Pinter’s characters is noteworthy, in particular Goldberg’s meticulously tailored grey suit punctuated with a bold yellow tie, and those ever present rollers in Meg’s hair.
Jeff Croiter’s arresting lighting adds to the play’s relentless atmosphere, as does Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound effects — setting the mood with the cries of seagulls, a fog horn, and the sound of the surf. Mostly there is Pinter — sinister doings amid the resounding sound of silence.
The Birthday Party, through Sunday, October 15, the Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. $48 to $15 (standing room). 609-258-2787.