Poor Kenneth Tynan. Some might say the famously acerbic theater critic never truly recognized the genius of Harold Pinter. In 1988, following a remounting of The Birthday Party, Pinter's landmark experiment in tension, black comedy, and creeping menace, the long-dead journalist was smacked around by New York Times scribe Mel Gussow for having originally dismissed the play as "a clever fragment grown dropsical with symbolic content." The only problem with Gussow's fawning assessment of Pinter's best-known work was that Tynan's initial criticisms were entirely correct.
Like it or not, most of Pinter's work — The Birthday Party, in particular — is laden (some might say overburdened) with dangling symbols and shot through with deliberately fragmentary passages that require audiences (willing and un-) to fill in the blanks. Like most great scripts, The Birthday Party can never be complete until actors have spoken the lines in a room full of eyewitnesses. Besides, if Gussow ever had witnessed an incarnation as imbalanced as the one currently on stage at TheatreWorks, he might have had a little more respect for Tynan's critical point of view, because in production, Pinter's writing, as tightly wound as it may be, is never able to stand on its own. And that, as counterintuitive as it may seem, is the playwright's true genius.
There is much good in the New Moon Theatre Company's take on The Birthday Party. David Newsome's keyboard-heavy sound design is especially engaging as it swings back and forth between tense discord and whimsical vaudeville runs. The cast's collective ability to use a foreign accent is not one of the production's stronger points, and much of their generally good acting is subverted by bad diction. TheatreWorks veteran Mark Rutledge is appropriately mundane as Petey, a mousy presence whose boring daily rituals transform themselves into absurd comedy, but his weird pronunciations get in the way of otherwise honest work. The same might be said for Sylvia Wilson's interpretation of Meg, Petey's talkative, sweetly twisted wife whose utter simplicity, even during the play's more perverse moments, is ultimately winning, even if she sounds a bit like Dick Van Dyke on a combination of helium and lithium.
Whatever good work the actors may have done on opening night was ultimately undone by the play's three-act structure, a pair of 10-minute intermissions that made the evening feel interminable, and a rude group of wine-swilling patrons who commented inappropriately throughout the show. Act 1 survived the onslaught, and act 2 got over in spite of numerous missteps and the cast's complete inability to physically commit to the play's darker themes. Act 3, however, was unfocused and threatened to turn into gibberish.
The Birthday Party, which has no plot in the traditional sense, revolves around Stanley (Carl Walters), a mysterious fellow who may or may not have been a piano player before becoming the only lodger at Petey and Meg's seedy seaside rooming house. The scruffy young man becomes tense when he hears of the imminent arrival of Goldberg (Jeff Corrigan) and McCann (Christopher Hulett), a pair of gangster-like characters who verbally deconstruct Stanley, until there's nothing left of him but a confused muttering husk.
Hulett delivers the evening's most satisfying performance, making McCann into a short-tempered Irish bear and a truly intimidating stage presence. He makes the ridiculous interrogation that begins The Birthday Party's second act as unnerving as it is hysterical. It is a perfect scene in a fragmented production that needs more time to develop.
Through August 17th at TheatreWorks