Review – Pinter’s The Birthday Party – Lyric Hammersmith

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Normally I don’t bother seeing a play twice unless it’s a razzle dazzle musical (i.e. Drowsy Chaperone). But in this case, I went to see a play I thought was really bad … in the hopes that in more competent hands, it would be really good. As you should know, I am a big Pinter fan. The previous time we saw The Birthday Party was at the Capitol Hill Arts Center in Seattle, Washington. Now, I tend to find fringe theater (of the sort we saw so much of in Seattle) very enjoyable in general – when it’s not actually part of a fringe festival, but rather by an established, small company presenting a regular season. Seattle companies really have very high quality actors, inventive directors, and all sorts of other things going for them that makes their shows generally quite good. But The Birthday Party was a failure. We couldn’t make sense of it, and we felt to a great extent it was because it didn’t make sense to the actors. They seemed to be just saying the lines to each other, as if they were reading a series of shuffled together flash-cards with dialogue written on them, yet not really understanding a word of what was coming out of their mouths. So they successfully showed they’d memorized the play, but, otherwise, they just stumbled through it practically with a look of fear and desperation in their faces that wasn’t really called for by the story line.

Three years later, I’m living in London, and I have really come to believe that American actors just can’t handle Pinter. It’s not, as Ben Brantley says in his review of Homecoming, that they can’t get the class implications in the accents. I fact, it’s so much more than that; it’s a complete miss on the culture underlying the plays, into which I fortunately have a little more insight these days. I was pretty aware of how far I had come watching The Birthday Party tonight at they Lyric Hammersmith. For example, I heard someone talk about getting “fried bread” for breakfast in the first act, and I thought, in America, that would just sound surreal and would probably throw an actor off. In America, you don’t fry bread any more than you fry lettuce or milk. And later, a man talks about coming home with the lights off “and I put a shilling in the slot and, boom! Lights on, nobody home!” This also is completely nonsensical because in America you don’t have coin activated meters to dole out electricity. You have parking meters and you have pay laundromats, but coins in a slot do not turn lights on.

I think these kinds of things would really fluster actors – the play would have to be annotated just as thoroughly as Shakespeare for them to follow along with what was going on. The towns where Goldberg went on vacation all have certain associations and implications, the concept of what it means to be a “deck chair attendant” at a beach resort means something, it all just builds on a life that can’t mean anything to a person who hasn’t seriously researched the culture and, perhaps, lived in it (as much as you can live in 1958). So it’s no surprise that the previous production I had seen was a failure, but I can’t really hold it against the actors too much.

I’m pleased to say that the production we saw tonight at the Lyric Hammersmith was a complete success in nearly every way and has pretty well completely overwritten my previous memory of the play. The doddering old landlady (Sheila Hancock) is not a drooling, brainless maniac – she’s a sweet, friendly, older woman who wouldn’t think it unreasonable to be flirted with (a bit of a Blanche Dubois in some ways), but not nearly the sex fiend she somehow came across before. Petey, the husband (Alan Williams), is a fairly decent man who lives a life that’s very much in many ways built on habit – but he’s still engaged with the world.

Goldberg (Nicholas Woodeson) and McCann (Lloyd Hutchinson) – what is up with Pinter and his fascination with mob types? Hitmen in The Dumbwaiter, a pimp in Homecoming – is this his fantasy of the dark side of London or something? When last I saw them, they were as evil and creepy as Gaiman’s Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and I found the scene where they were trying to force Stanley (this time played by Justin Salinger) to sit in a chair unbearably tense. I imagined them trying to break his legs once they got him down. They also seemed to be in a struggle with each other, for Goldberg to prove he still retained his youthful power by exerting himself over McCann. This didn’t really seem to be the dynamic tonight. Instead, McCann was the somewhat stupid muscle (with the loveliest singing voice!) who was very obedient to Goldberg’s wishes – including the scene where he blew in his mouth (and WTF was that about – I was cracking up). He had a lovely Irish accent (which Chris Macdonald flubbed) … which put Goldberg’s bizarre English/Jewish accent into high relief to me, as an American New York/Jewish accent leavened with occasional Britishness. It sounded like he’d tried to cram the two things together unsuccessfully, as if to imply the whole schtick Goldberg was doing was a put-on. I imagined the actor had perhaps just failed to get a proper voice coach, but the friends I went with to the play (Trish and Simon) assured me he sounded completely fine to them.

So, really what do I know, I am still a foreigner here. I will say, though, that this play was a really good time for us and much more clearly comic than it was the last time I saw it. I no longer think it’s meant to be read literally, and the absurdist elements were very clear to me (“We’ll make a man out of you!” “And a woman!”). What, really, is the plot? We weren’t able to make it out. Stanley (Justin Salinger, looking too young for the role) didn’t really telegraph it to me, and Pinter, as usual, didn’t bother telling me up front by having something obvious like an extended, painful mermaid metaphor at the beginning of the play. Bless his black little heart! I was so pleased I went and bought a book “about his thoughts on his work” in the lobby at the end of the night, and I’m going to try to puzzle through it myself. In fact, now that I see that his complete archives are at the British Library, I’m wondering if perhaps I ought to do even more research on him … of the sort that might eventually lead to a book of my own. I bet I’ve got it in me, but it’s going to be hard to do when I don’t want to read any scripts for shows I haven’t seen lest I ruin the surprise. How will I ever have the same amount of fun discussing what happened after a show (as if I and the person sitting next to me had seen two completely different plays) if I already know what the received wisdom is on the play I’m watching? One play at a time, though, I bet I can eventually make it through the oevre, even in enough time to get that book written. It’s a goal!

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