As audience members, Cockroach Theatre invites us to join them in celebration of their “Tenth Anniversary Season of Plays” by donning the party hats given to us in goody bags upon entrance to the theatre. It’s also playwright Harold Pinter’s birthday, and we are here to watch his absurdist black comedy “The Birthday Party.”
Since it also may or may not be the birthday of a character in the play, the festive atmosphere seems apt. We are seemingly here to party but it’s not all fun and games, not in the literal sense.
Set in a shabby boarding house somewhere on the English coast, “The Birthday Party” takes us into the mundane lives of the people who inhabit it. They are older owners Petey and his cheery wife Meg, their aimless boarder Stanley and the cheeky LuLu who pops in now and then.
When they are visited out of the blue by two mysterious men, Goldberg and McCann — who have unfinished business with Stanley — their tranquil but stagnant lives are turned upside down.
Pinter’s play received horrible reviews after it’s London opening in 1958, misunderstood by many as it doesn’t present an easy scenario or spell things out. The identities of the characters are ambiguous and this type of drama is called a “Comedy of Menace,” in that average people in average circumstances are terrorized for unknown reasons by forces that are out of their control.
Since all reason is up in the air, there are many ways to interpret the play and it’s meaning can be very personal for each viewer. It could be about the past coming back to haunt, the forces of good vs. evil, totalitarianism or about a fractured personality. It honors a universal truth — that there always seems to be an existential threat that haunts us all under the surface of our lives.
An actor’s piece, Erik Amblad’s direction mines its comedy, and he focuses on the nonsensical language of Pinter; rhythm and silence and the famous Pinter pause are all concentrated on. But sometimes the pauses seem a beat too long, coming off more as lapses in memory than as an intended effect. This slows down the pace in places, and often drags things out.
With Meg often referred to as “mad,” Barbara King gives her a flitty innocence — funny with an almost overdone flourish and covering up fear with surface conversation. As Petey, Anthony Farmer shuffles slowly with arthritic old age, providing physical comic relief and a natural delivery.
As the glum Stanley, Scott McAdam is more puppy dog than thug, but his palpable fear is evident as he transforms from fight to the resignation that he can’t escape. Jamie Carvelli gives the working-class LuLu a sweet likability, and balances the contradiction of naiveté with the impurity of her desires.
David Beck as Goldberg and Bryan Todd as McCann present a motley pair, their characters comically represented as physical opposites. The gangly Todd is a Neanderthal as McCann, heavy with knuckles dragging in instinctual anger. The slight Beck creates a slick figure in Goldberg, amiable and led by intellect, yet ready to strike at any time.
Timothy Burris’ thrust stage set design gives a spare, somewhat abstract dining room with the huge dinner table dominating in the customary way. Shawn Hackler’s lighting design is notable as much for a representation of warm summer daylight as it is for a lack of light in the famous black-out party scene. Abby Stroot’s costumes represent each character definitively as they should.
Cockroach Theatre’s presentation of “The Birthday Party” gives an evening of disturbing, existential fun. Be ready for surprises but few revelations.