Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party is consistently ranked in the top 100 plays of the 20th century. Often it’s in the top 20. That does not necessarily mean that you’re going to enjoy it.
A.C.T.’s production of The Birthday Party is very well designed, directed and performed but if you’re looking for a show with a plot you can follow, this is not that show. It’s a confusing jumble of questions without answers from beginning to end.
Set in an English seaside boardinghouse, six characters interact and throw a birthday party for boarder Stanley, whose birthday it is not. It is hard to explain the plot beyond that because it is very much open to interpretation. Over the course of the play, the characters ask 689 questions, very few of which are given any sort of answers, let alone answers that make sense. There are two characters that might be gangsters, there’s an old woman who might be crazy and there’s a point to the story that may or may not exist. If you’re willing to just feel the emotions of the play rather than try to make sense of the words, you may be able to enjoy the show.
That stated, the show is well executed creatively. The set design immediately creates a claustrophobic space for the action on the large Geary stage. All of the actors perform their characters with conviction and subtlety that make them seem like real people who believe the bizarre things they say. The direction too feels effortless, like you’re peaking into real people’s lives. But it’s easy to miss these elements if you’re working overtime to try and figure out what the heck is going on.
Judith Ivey, playing Meg, the dotty little old lady who runs the boarding house, is delightful. One of the few characters that is consistent in her characterization, she is funny and sweet. She’s a touchstone for the audience when everything else seems to be beyond our comprehension.
Critics in every art form over the last 100 years have praised some weird stuff. This is partly because the critic’s job is to praise art that reflects social, political and interpersonal feelings of the time and that doesn’t always correlate with what the public likes. This is the reason that a signed urinal can be lauded as high art and The Fast and the Furious isn’t. However, critical acclaim for strange sculpture, paintings, music, movies and plays is also because we critics see so much of any given art form. When you’re seeing three to four plays a week, the weird ones stand out and are, perhaps given more attention than they deserve, simply for being outside the norm.
Maybe I just haven’t been reviewing long enough, but I don’t see the appeal of The Birthday Party. I go to the theater first and foremost to be told a good story. I want to lose myself in the world of the characters and, ideally, learn something about society, emotions or myself by the end of the night. The Birthday Party doesn’t do that—that’s not what it intendeds. It makes you think, which is a good thing, but it doesn’t focus your thoughts on an issue or central question. Instead you’re left trying to figure out what just happened.
The most frustrating thing about Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party is that nothing gets resolved. The audience never gets to know what was going on and are forced to leave with far more questions than when they arrived. It’s weird, suspenseful and unsettling and there is no way to tell definitively what any of it means. If that interests you, it’s a great show. If you prefer some closure in your plays, you can skip this one.
Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party is playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, now through February 4, 2018. The show runs about two and a half hours with one intermission after the first hour. Tickets run between $15 and $110.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne