“Don’t let them tell you what to do!” cries Petey, famously, as his houseguest Stanley is muscled away in the grip of two mysterious strangers. The plea echoes through the spooky final minutes of The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter’s fascinating 1958 tale of suspense. But it also sounds a lot like a working manifesto for the new theatre company Idly Bent, an affable pack of recent UVA grads who have come to town determined to set up shop, however modestly, and start self-producing.
Directed by Anne Cecilia Haney, the six-actor cast makes earnest work of navigating the ambiguous plot points and elliptical language that make this Pinter play so enchantingly bizarre, and the level of thoughtful attention they put toward the work of one of the twentieth century’s most challenging playwrights marks The Birthday Party as a successful, consistently intriguing post-grad project.
Pinter hasn’t made it easy for us. This drama has a veneer of the familiar — a three-act structure, a comfortable domestic tone to the dialogue — but its action lurches repeatedly toward the illogical. Pinter has built a realistic raft but set it out upon a sea of absurdism, confounding our expectations of each character’s past, present, and future.
This weaving and dodging seems shapeless at moments, but Pinter is simply one step ahead of us. The play’s dark design, which centers on the unraveling of one bewildered man’s mind under oppressive anxiety and social pressure, is unpredictable but punishingly precise, repeatedly hijacking our expectations just as we’ve finished reviewing the facts.
It all falls on Stanley (Paul Thomas Truitt), a renowned pianist who has holed himself up in a seaside boarding house run by older couple Meg (Rebecca Speas) and Petey (John Crowley). Stanley may not, in fact, be a pianist. The house may or may not be a boarding house. And the secretive pair of visitors who come calling (Caleb Erickson and Stefan DiFazio) may or may not be criminals, or bureaucrats, or old friends of Stanley’s.
We do witness, however, that the birthday party they throw — on a day that may or may not be Stanley’s actual birthday — quickly morphs into a cruel trial of wills, punctuated by Stanley’s sudden and shocking transgression against his kind young friend Lulu (Angela Pirko).
The Birthday Party
Closes January 13, 2013
DC Arts Center
2438 18th Street NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: call 202 462 7833
As Stanley, Truitt braves this strange storm with considerable skill, tuning in nicely to his antihero’s dyspeptic inner rumblings. At turns charming, panicked, and venomously angry, Truitt pivots smartly and convincingly on the grain of Stanley’s trouble spots, and brings empathy to a reckless and complicated character who may be played all too easily as grotesque. His co-stars, in most moments, honor this sincerity as well, diligently gripping the guide-rope of realism as they venture across some of Pinter’s more surreal terrain.
For an official entry into the world of professional theatre, portions of this Birthday Party still smack of the college environment. The level of technique among the cast ranges rather broadly. The team retains — perhaps temporarily — a campus habit of age-blind casting, which puzzles more than once in a show featuring characters ranging from ages twenty to sixty. And the show’s pacing is too ponderous by half for such a well-oiled little nightmare as Pinter has penned here (the playwright himself, famed for his “Pause” stage directions, has sometimes advised deleting any empty moments that don’t feel meaningful in production).
But grappling with such timeworn challenges is a step toward full bloom, and anyone excited about the immediate future of the DC theatre landscape should be getting out to see shows precisely like this one. Idly Bent’s intelligent treatment of this classic modern play bodes very well indeed. Let’s welcome them to town, and fill enough seats to wish this company, down the road, a few birthday parties of its own.
The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter . directed by Anne Cecilia Haney . produced by Idly Bent Theatre Company . reviewed by Hunter Styles