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May 19 1958, almost 57 years ago to this date, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY opened at the Lyric Hammersmith stage. It received some harsh overnight reviews, and the producers closed the play after eight performances. Harold Pinter was almost destroyed by the reviews. Then 60 days later It attracted an new director Peter Wood, on a brief pre-London tour in Cambridge and Oxford, the play was received well by undergraduate audiences and critics. The Oxford Press invoked Hemingway and Eliot, and the Oxford Times described it as baffling and bizarre - Kafka, almost, spiced with humour. To this date THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is regarded as one of Pinter's best works.

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is classic Harold Pinter in three acts, complete with his usual hallmarks of ambiguous dialogue, setting, and relationships, and very meaningful pauses and silences. Off-Broadways West Theatre Company’s production is well-handled by experienced artistic director Richard Harder. Harder brings his talented cast this menacing dark tail to the small black box space Phoenix stage. As Pinter is famous for the pace of his stories, it can be slow, yet have its comic moments.

Harold Pinter

The first act is the set-up to the birthday party, the second contains the party itself, and the third deals with the repercussions of this unusual event. The first act is fascinating (although sometimes slow) as the audience watches the nature of these characters unfold in all their confusing three-dimensional glory.

The inimitable Celia Maurice plays the dumpy housewife/landlady Meg, and her comic timing and engagement with the other characters onstage is wonderful. The whole play takes place in the main room of the home (and perhaps also boarding house) of Meg and her husband Petey Boles, a gruff, quiet, and kind deckchair attendant played by a Graham Cowley who marvelously disappears into the role.

The mundane activities of the Boles household that makes up Act One would be dull except for the undercurrent of dark tension and the comedic talents of the actors. Adam Simpson has a particularly tough role as the petulant, disturbed, often silent Stanley Webber, the recipient of the titular Birthday Party and Meg’s sole boarder. Simpson plays the sadistic Stanley tormenting the mothering Meg with an intense silent anger done so well and on the brink of madness. His relationship with Lulu, played by an engaging Jessica Lea Risco, is baffling, and his murky past propels the plot. With the arrival of Goldberg and McCann as boarders at the house the show really kicks off. Goldberg is played by an aristocratic Keith Burkland, and Centofani’s McCann looks likes a thuggish version of Don Draper of AMC's Mad Men.

By far the most lively and powerful act is the second, with many characters on stage at the same time and the most action of the play. Burkland does a wonderful job as the driving force behind this act, although he seems to struggle with lines at moments that hurt the momentum of the play. The interplay between the alternately menacing and charming McCann and Goldberg with the frivolous and naïve Meg and Lulu made this act gripping theatre and very fine Pinter, with the audience on the edge of their seats at its climactic finale.

Unfortunately the third act is very similar to the first act but without the air of mystery that made it so appealing. I saw several audience members nod off as the play slowly tied up its loose ends. Harold Pinter is known for his periods of pause or silence that often reveal more about the characters than the dialogue itself. This means that an unnecessary pause in the wrong place, or too many additional pauses can leave a production limp and limping. A three-act Pinter play is incredibly demanding, and the last act was a rough note to end on, especially after a superb Act II. Many say Pinter is Pinter and his underlying message is sometimes in the uncomfortable lives of his characters and his dark masterpiece. OBWTC production is pure in your face “Pinteresque” and is a perfect evening to round out your summer theatre season in the Bay Area.


by Harold Pinter

directed by Richard Harder

May 22 - June 27th

THE CAST Keith Burkland* (Goldberg), James Centofanti (McCann), Graham Cowley (Petey),

Celia Maurice (Meg), Jessica Risco (Lulu) & Adam Simpson (Stanley)

The Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, Suite 601, San Francisco

(between Geary & Post, above Ruby Skye)

$40.00 General Admission Advance Tickets: 1-800-838-3006

Photo's by Jessica Greenstreet

Correspondent Matt Bratko - is a recent grad of University of California Berkeley with a Double-Major BA in Theatre and Performance. He is currently studying at the University of Florida for his MFA in Theatre. Bratko contributes to VmediaBackStage

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