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Carey Perloff’s swan song for her quarter century as American Conservatory Theatre’s moving Artistic Director brings a Party to the Geary stage. Harold Pinter’s THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is now at ACT’s Geary stage through February 4th. This is the final play Perloff will direct for the company as she ends her term as artistic director. Perloff has been a long time fan of Pinter, producing many of his plays over the years. Parloff says she first started working with Pinter in 1989 when she was in New York “I was running a small off Broadway theater where we produced Pinter’s Mountain Language in a double bill with Birthday Party.” She says Pinter came to New York to rehearse both plays with the company “Despite his famously cantankerous rep, Pinter was a joy to work with he loved actors; being one himself. This production is dedicated to my husband in celebration of all the many nights we have both sat on our couch reading Pinter aloud to each other and feeling, in Lenny’s from The Homecoming, “jubilant.”

Carey Perloff and Harold Pinter (NY 1989)

The skilled Carey Perloff takes her bow as a director while in her final 25th season as Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theatre. Her career with ACT has been extraordinary and bringing together this “A” list cast of her favorite actors to play these Pinter characters, this is the best way to end her Party at ACT. The celebrated script and superb cast includes Tony winner and the flawless Judith Ivery. Including a cast of accomplished actors taking this three act Pinterword play over the top. Perloff also teamed the best creative staff including the gifted Tina Ball’s dinghy boarding house set that brings the Party to life. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is one of Harold Pinter’s best works that is rarely staged of his almost 30 plays. This London post war caper and novela brings the 40’s dark side that was shared after those dark Euro years.

May 19, 1958, almost 60 years ago, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY opened at the Lyric Hammersmith stage. It received some harsh overnight reviews, and the producers closed the play after eight performances. Pinter was almost destroyed by the reviews. Then 60 days later It attracted director, Peter Wood, who was on a brief pre-London tour in Cambridge and Oxford. The play was received well by undergraduate audiences and perceptive critics. The Oxford Press invoked Hemingway and Eliot, and the Oxford Times described it as baffling and bizarre; Kafka, spiced with humor. To this date THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is regarded as one of Pinter's refined scripts. I like the comparison that ACT is using for this winter production - it is very David Lynch/Tarantino and reminds me of the many classic capers with Mr. Pink and the gang of thugs.

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is splendid Harold Pinter complete with his usual hallmarks of ambiguous dialogue, and relationships, and very meaningful pauses and silences. Perloff’s distinguished production is well handled by these experienced actors including Dan Hiatt, Firdous Bamji, Julie Adamo, Marco Barricelli, and Scott Wentworth. Perloff brings her talented cast a menacing dark and humorous tale to the Geary.

The first act is the set up to the birthday party in a dilapidated boarding house near a sleepy seaside English town. Stanley Webber, played by the intense Fidous Bamji, is a piano player who lives with his landlords, Meg and Petey played by pro’s Ivey and Dan Hiatt. It’s Stanley’s party that Meg wants to celebrate. Two new guests arrive, Goldberg and McCann played by Marco Barricelli and Scott Wentworth. There is a slow charm to Ivey’s brilliant interpretation on Meg who is lonely, yet adorable and a bit dim. The musky Stanley and Petey lead a drab existence. Meg asks “how are your cornflakes, what’s the weather like, is the paper good?”

Bamji version of Stanley is more sadistic, and a cold rudeness towards Meg. He describes her as mellow then he turns and calls her an old piece of stale cake. Meg talks about his room “Oh Stan, that’s a lovely room. I’ve had some lovely afternoons in that room.” As Meg does with Petey she asks inane and repetitive questions that become the perfect humor of the play and kept the Geary sold old crowd giggling. Two guests enter the boarding house which doesn’t see many guests. Meg is excited, she starts preparing for the big event, as her new borders present their agenda for their visit.

The performances are flawless, but it’s Judith Ivey’s brilliance that steals the show as the aging Meg with little hope and nowhere to go. Her comic timing and engagement with the other characters onstage is wonderful. The whole play takes place in the main room of the boarding house. Petey Boles, a gruff, quiet, and kind deckchair attendant played by Hiatt who marvelously disappears into the role. 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 Julie Adamo, is baffling, and his seedy past propels the plot. With the arrival of thug as boarders at the house the story becomes more interesting and keeps you on edge.

The most lively and powerful act is the second with all the characters on stage at the same time and the most action 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. Nina Ball's set has depth and sand abound - the boarding house is a character on its own and missing its roof only due to the subtext that these folks have seen it all. Costumes by Candice Donnelly give the two thugs that Ad Men look, and Lulu’s bright party look and the important neck scarf later used for the blindfold game. Robert Hand’s lighting includes a scary black out that takes us to Pinter’s dark side, and Darron L West’s sound design brings the game of “blind man’s bluff” a striking edge.

Harold Pinter is known for his periods of pause or silence that often reveal more about the characters than the dialogue itself. A three-act Pinter play is incredibly demanding, and the last act was a quiet moment to end the madness. Many say Pinter is PINTERESQUE and his underlying message is sometimes in the uncomfortable lives of his characters and his dark masterpiece. This is a birthday party where you won’t want to overstay your welcome. Just be prepared to leave scratching your head and wondering if you and I are really Meg. Congratulations Carey Perloff on the wonderfull 25 year stint as the CD at the Geary stage.This final play she directs is a powerhouse and the best way for her to show her excellence in directing and bringing some of the distinguished playwrights and productions to the American Conservatory Theatre. She will be very missed.

American Conservatory Theater Presents

The Birthday Party

by Harold Pinter

Directed by Carey Perloff

Must close Feb. 4.

ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.

Two hours, 20 minutes. With one intermission

(415) 749-2228.

Photo’s by Kevin Berne

THE CAST Julie Adamo, Firdous Bamji, Marco Barricelli, Dan Hiatt, Judith Ivey, and Scott Wentworth

Carey Perloff, the longtime artistic director of American Conservatory Theater, announced that she will depart the organization after 25 years as its leader. Perloff will leave at the end of the 2017-18 season.

“Serving as artistic director of ACT for the past 25 years has been the greatest joy of my life,” said Perloff in a statement. “It never occurred to me when I arrived in San Francisco in 1992 that I would love this job, this city, this audience, and this staff so much that I would stay here for a quarter of a century. I feel incredibly gratified that over the past five years we have realized the long-held dream of creating a second stage for ACT in which new work and new artists can flourish, and where our brilliant students can be more visible.”

A search committee is currently being formed to find a new artistic director. Peter Pastreich, who stepped in as ACT’s interim executive director last year (after the departure of Ellen Richard), will stay on at the theatre to assist the search committee.

Perloff was hired at ACT in 1992. During her tenure, she has overseen a number of milestones at the theatre, including the rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged Geary Theater, expanding ACT’s programming by purchasing and renovating the Strand Theater, the revitalization of its MFA program, and the commissioning of the Women’s Leadership in Residential Theaters research study (which showed that women are still underrepresented in LORT leadership). In addition, she has also made new work a focus for the theatre, commissioning countless world premieres and creating the New Strands Festival.

Perloff says that she is stepping down to focus on her own career as a director. “I am truly excited to finally have the chance to explore my own work—as a director, playwright, and book author—without carrying all of the administrative burdens of an institution,” she said in a statement. “It’s a great moment in the American theatre to do the work one most believes in.” In the past 25 years, Perloff has directed more than 50 productions at ACT, including Antigone (1993), Arcadia (1995 and 2013), Elektra (2012), The Homecoming (2011), Hecuba (1995 and 1998), Indian Ink (1999 and 2015), The Invention of Love (2000), and The Orphan of Zhao (2014).

Many of her productions have gone on to be produced around the country. The works she has commissioned include Ursula Rani Sarma’s play adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Stuck Elevator by Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis, and High Society, a musical featuring the songs of Cole Porter which moved to Broadway.

Perloff is also a playwright. Her play Kinship premiered at the Théâtre de Paris in October 2014 in a production starring Isabelle Adjani and Niels Schneider, and it was produced last year at the Williamstown Theater Festival last summer, starring Cynthia Nixon and directed by Jo Bonney. Her memoir about her time at ACT, Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater, was released in 2005 and was excerpted by American Theatre in two parts. Prior to ACT, Perloff was the artistic director of Classic Stage Company in New York City.

“Carey Perloff’s 25-year legacy at ACT is nothing short of phenomenal,” said the chair of ACT’s board, Nancy Livingston, in a statement. “Not only is she an extraordinary artistic director, but also a gifted playwright, author, producer, director, teacher, mentor, and consummate fundraiser. Her combined passion for ACT and the community it serves are revered throughout the Bay Area, as well as nationally and internationally. As a personal friend and devoted colleague, I am thrilled to celebrate her many accomplishments throughout the next season.”

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY cast members discuss the show’s genre:

Perloff discuss' THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

Pinter’s Nobel lecture:

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