It can be intellectually and emotionally challenging when people don’t tell the truth. It can be particularly annoying, or perhaps exciting, to discover that a play contains a so-called “unreliable narrator,” someone charged with telling the story who nevertheless lies, tells less than the truth, or plants information that might lead an audience to one conclusion while another is more truthful.
What if you have a play consisting entirely of unreliable narrators? That’s what Harold Pinter did in his 1957 work, The Birthday Party. The London production was an overwhelming failure with both audiences and most critics, who were plenty annoyed with the unreliable storytelling. Later, though, that unreliability became associated with Pinter’s genius, and opinion of The Birthday Party did a complete reversal.
New Fortune Theatre Company is true to Pinter’s vision in its production of The Birthday Party, and the wised-up audience laughs at the non-sequiturs as each character inhabits a world that is only partially related to the world of every other character. The reason annoyance can turn to laughter, however, is that the acting and direction are so fully realized.
Petey (Marcus Overton) and Meg (Dana Hooley) are the proprietors of a boarding house in an English coastal town. Or, at least Meg keeps saying that she’s running a boarding house. The only boarder is a man named Stanley (Max Macke), and it’s unclear whether Stanley is actually paying rent – he’s unkempt, hardly deigns to get dressed, and while he claims to be a pianist, there’s no sign that he’s pursuing any sort of career. Meg hovers over Stanley, bringing him a morning cup of tea in bed and tolerating his late appearances at breakfast. “Breakfast” also puts on airs, as it consists of two courses – cold corn flakes, and a piece of fried bread.
Can you construct a coherent narrative from The Birthday Party? Maybe, maybe not…
Petey takes in all of this in bemused fashion. He has a job setting out and bringing in deck chairs at the seaside resort, so he gets up early, comes back for breakfast, and then finds things to keep himself busy and out of the house. He keeps telling Meg that everything is fine, when it is questionable how the couple manage to survive.
Meg has met two gentlemen who say that they need a place to stay for a couple of nights, and she’s delighted to tell them that she can provide a room for them. The gentlemen arrive dressed in three-piece suits, despite the fact that they are in a seaside resort. Goldberg (Matthew Henerson) is gregarious, while McCann (Richard Baird) is taciturn and severe. McCann is also obsessed with tearing the local newspaper into strips. Stanley says he doesn’t know these men, but he is clearly afraid of them.
Meg announces that she’s throwing a birthday party for Stanley, even though Stanley says more than once that it isn’t his birthday. She invites Goldberg and McCann. Petey declines to attend. A young woman named Lulu (Amanda Schaar) also joins the party, with disastrous results.
Contradictions abound. Meg pretends to be a splendid hostess and the belle of the ball. Petey pretends not to notice much but chooses to ignore much of what he sees. Goldberg and McCann, members of oppressed religious minorities, wield power in a despotic manner. Stanley seems like he’s hiding from someone or something, but he doesn’t try to escape. Lulu insists she’s not a prostitute and seems not to notice that the birthday party is going really badly.
Can you construct a coherent narrative from The Birthday Party? Maybe, maybe not: in order to do so you’d have to make a lot of assumptions, and some, perhaps many, might not be warranted. But, if you buy into the idea that at every turn your attempts to figure it out will be thwarted then you can just relax and laugh at what clearly are the many intentionally humorous lines.
Have the actors figured out the play? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d bet that the entire cast has an excellent idea of their individual characters and they know why they are doing what they are doing, even if it doesn’t always make sense. Why? Because Mr. Baird’s direction and the level of performance by each cast member is so confident (including appropriate accents, which were coached by Jillian Frost).
The technical aspects of the production support the performances, mostly without getting in the way. Marty Burnett is used to designing for a wide but not deep stage at North Coast Rep, and at Moxie’s Rolando theatre he provides a modest home that might be a bit of a fantasy in itself, as it looks a bit too neat and tidy for a couple who may be in dire financial straits. Matt Novotny, Mr. Burnett’s North Coast colleague, knows how to light this design efficiently and effectively. Mr. Baird collaborated with Ms. Schaar on costumes and props and with Justin Lang on sound design, all of which provide ample clues to his vision as director.
New Fortune’s debut production, Shakespeare’s Henry V, popped up last fall and promptly won breathless reviews and two Craig Noel Awards. This smart and striving sophomore production is likely to bring additional honors. Performances continue through August 30.
DOWNLOAD PROGRAM HERE, and be sure to read the director’s essay, plus the poem on the penultimate page.