Harold Pinter's classic black comedy The Birthday Party is 50 years old and still hammering the funny bone and socking it to the gut in Undermain Theatre's perfectly hilarious and terrifying ensemble production, directed by Patrick Kelly with style and nuance.
We drop from a parachute onto Planet Pinter and are instantly taken in by people who cajole, tease, complain, threaten, party-down and then go to bed or utterly bonkers.
In a third-rate seaside boarding house, Meg Boles (Mary Lang) and her husband Petey (T. A. Taylor) are finishing up their morning cornflakes when their only boarder, an unemployed piano player named Stanley Webber (Gregory Lush) shuffles in for breakfast. Petey's off to his job as a deck-chair attendant, while flirty Meg comes on to uptight and uninterested Stanley. Then two spooky strangers show up. Goldberg (Bruce DuBose) is the smooth-talking front man and McCann (Marcus D. Stimac) is his unsmiling Irish henchman. Meg decides to include these dubious characters in a birthday party for Stanley, who insists it isn't even his birthday! The bizarre and boozy party in the second act and the shocking aftermath in the third make for a raucous and revealing ride – fast and fascinating, the way you want a show to go.
Famously Pinter and vibrating with ambiguity, absurdity and angst, the play's characters are both strangely familiar and mysterious – and Kelly has assembled a brilliant cast for this party. Actors live for such roles because everything depends on the tone of the ordinary talk, the length of a pause, the lift of an eyebrow or thrust of a hip—plus the imaginative staying power to zip up a relentless Pinter body suit and stay in it for the duration.
Everybody is electric—and audience laughter erupts suddenly as the sparks fly. DuBose is a smiling Goldberg, a natty, talkative pitchman in the role Pinter himself played. Sleazy and menacing, he mixes homeboy charm and oily flattery—and he's always in control. Whether seducing a willing woman with a slow smile, yakking it up with Petey or interrogating his blubbering witness with numbing questions, DuBose never loses his sure delivery and comic timing, even in the most violent scenes. His Goldberg is really awful—and awfully funny.
Stimac's McCann is a perfectly rigid, chisel-faced thug. Muscled and tense, he's a handsome, well-trained attack animal, eagerly awaiting the master's command. His very presence terrifies Stanley, especially watching McCann's biceps pulse while he meticulously shreds the newspaper to pieces, column by column. His face-to-face standoff with Stanley is a frightening and furiously funny sort of waltz you'll never see on any dance floor.
Lush, in a breakthrough performance, is a high-strung and trembling Stanley with huge, black-framed glasses and a jerky gait. He lies glibly about his career one moment, and then slams his face onto the kitchen table in frustration over the fried bread the next. Pretty Lulu (Katherine Bourne) is enticed when Stanley suddenly suggests she go away with him and wants to know where. But his whole body suddenly droops, when he admits, "There's nowhere to go." Lush is Everyman as a doubt-ridden bluffer with a bad hand, his back against the wall and always expecting to be caught in the act. I laughed at his bulging eyes—and pitied him completely.
Lang's Meg is a wonderfully flirty and dowdy woman, mincing about her tacky boarding house with its ugly wallpaper, and wearing an apron with matching poppies. She's funniest when she's making stupid conversation—and she, too, has a boisterous and boozy scene with the suddenly tamed pet thug.
John Arnone designed the homey, rundown boarding house with its atrocious wallpaper and a printed oilcloth stapled to the table. Giva Taylor's costumes pull it all together, with clothes that look like mid-century film clips.