The Birthday Party

The intimate Germinal Stage Denver theater is a perfect venue for The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter's claustrophobic puzzler of a play. On the stage, the furniture is almost insultingly nondescript — a round wooden table, worn-looking chairs, a bulbous fish ornament. We're inside an English bed-and-breakfast run by a very odd couple: phlegmatic Petey and his wife, Meg. Every morning, Meg gives Petey his breakfast of cereal, fried bread and coffee, serving it up with a stream of placid banalities to which he responds perfunctorily while reading the paper. Petey's job is renting deck chairs on the beach, and he and Meg have one lodger, Stanley, who lives in his pajamas and whom Meg treats like an overgrown son. Stanley is silent but hardly meek, a disheveled little terrier of a man who periodically shows his teeth. He says he was once a pianist. Or at least that he once gave a concert.

This stagnant life is disturbed when two men arrive at the house asking for rooms: Goldberg and McCann, a Jew and an Irishman. They should be stock comic figures, but they aren't. McCann is all violent possibility. Goldberg is more complex, and his personality changes depending on whom he's talking to: He ignores Petey, is all old-world courtesy with Meg, and turns into a slavering satyr when confronted with sexy little neighbor Lulu. His speech is a mix of sentimental reminiscence, platitudes, catchphrases and thuggish cliches that would fit comfortably in the mouth of Tony Soprano. Goldberg and McCann are looking for Stanley, and he's clearly terrified of them, but we never really know why. The narrative keeps shifting; even the names change. It either is or isn't Stanley's birthday, and everyone is planning a party for him, but the real action is subterranean, taking place somewhere deep beneath the characters' chatter.

That action is the destruction of a human being. Stanley had taken refuge in a forgotten place at the very end of the world, but his destiny has tracked him down. Perhaps Goldberg and McCann are symbolic representations of the forces of convention, stifling the individual. But the long sequence in which they interrogate Stanley — pounding him with sharp-edged, apparently nonsensical references — is reminiscent of interrogation rooms the world over, and when we learn later that the two men have spent the night in Stanley's room with him, we shudder at what might have happened there. Stanley finally emerges from that room dressed in a suit and a bowler hat — certainly an allusion to Waiting for Godot. He is a shivering husk.

Ed Baierlein's deep familiarity with Pinter's work — he has produced several Pinter plays — is evident in his skillful direction. Though the accents are a little variable, all of the performances are first-rate, particularly those of Terry Burnsed as Stanley, Erica Sarzin-Borrillo as Meg and Baierlein himself as Goldberg. Joseph C. Wilson's stolid, understated Petey is terrific, and Stephen R. Kramer is a menacing presence as McCann. Newcomer Luciann Lajoie gives us an effectively silly, sexy Lulu.

It is no stretch to imagine that Pinter — a Jew born in 1930 — had fascism in mind when he wrote The Birthday Party in the 1950s, despite the fact that one of Stanley's tormenters is himself Jewish. Pinter's concern about torture and repression has become more and more evident over the years, culminating in the scathing condemnation of the United States' support for totalitarian regimes in his Nobel acceptance speech. In 1989 he wrote Mountain Language, a play set in an unnamed prison in an unspecified country, in which language is the primary tool used to destroy prisoners. At Pinter's suggestion, Mountain Language was produced that year in conjunction with The Birthday Party, and there's a chilling similarity in the theme of interrogation in both plays.

When you see a Pinter play, you find that his rhythms stay with you — the surges of sound and the silences, the things said and left unsaid. For a while, you talk like a Pinter character, and everyone's sentences sound like Pinter's. Listen to the rhythms in this excerpt from Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo, in which Murat Kurnaz, a German Turk held for five years, describes his interrogation by a German-speaking American, who started out by talking about his own student days in Germany:

He had shared a house with other American students, and they had regularly smoked hashish. A woman from the authorities regularly came to their house with a dog trained to sniff out drugs. But they knew when she was coming so they would break the hashish into little pieces and spread it all over the carpet with a toothbrush. The dog went crazy because he smelled the scent of hashish everywhere, and the woman was happy because she seemed to have discovered the drugs. But she couldn't find them, and every time she left disappointed.

Why was he telling me this silly story?

He was excitable. A lot of the time, he was laughing. There was a file with some papers and a pen on his desk. He told me some more stories, which bored me. He was talking as if I were hardly even there. ...

Suddenly he asked, "Do you know what we have in store for you?"

I smiled and held the smile long enough so he was sure to see it.

"Yes," I said. ...

"Tell me your life story," he said.

...He kept interrupting me, he wanted to know names. The names of the friends I had mentioned. He wanted to know if I had any girlfriends — their names interested him, too. He wanted to know when and where I spent my time and which discotheques I had worked for. Names, names, names.

He said that as a terrorist I had only tried to hide in the discos, that I was using them for cover.

"I know you terrorists," he said.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman