The Birthday Party
Where 116 W. Glen Ave., Syracuse, NY
When Through September 28th
Review by Nick Reichert
Harold Pinter is a theatrical force of nature. The Nobel prize winner’s plays and other writings have left a menacingly fun mark upon the stage. With more than five decades writing for and performing in the theatre, Pinter belongs in the pantheon of the 20th century’s most important playwrights and writers. His words still bring devilish fun and power. Even in unorthodox locations.
Located in the basement of a Lutheran Church, Appleseed Productions rendition of “The Birthday Party,” one of Pinter’s most popular plays, is filled with sharp wit, biting rhetoric, and a creeping menace and danger at even the most pedestrian of situations. And though this birthday cake has its fair share of sour milk, it’s a date you don’t want to miss.
Set during one fateful day in a sleepy seaside town near London, the play depicts the inhabitants of a boarding house celebrating one fateful lodger’s birthday. Even with such a simple plot, the directors, cast and Pinter paint a world dripping with absurd humor, lust and menace. Directors Lois Haas and John Brackett are smart enough avoid any inordinate blocking and direction interrupting Pinter’s text. Everything technical about the production is minimal. From the lighting and scenic design to props, everything is bare and simplistic so as to create a blank canvas for the performances that are essential to the success of a play so dependent on fast tongues and faster reactions.
And at the beginning of show, the acting quality of the production seemed like a bad joke. With the elderly couple Petey (Jonathan Weissberg, making his theatre debut) and Meg (Theresa Constantine), who own the boarding house where the play is set, the initial performance felt like an old man waking up in the morning. Stiff in the joints and yawning in its pace, the ensemble fortunately wakes up with vigor as the first act unfolds.
As the birthday boy Stanley (Michal Lepore) appears, however, draped in his bath robe and comically large glasses, the conflict and dark humor of “The Birthday Party” arrives with him. Lepore serves two versions of Stanley: the hanging bum and the manic savage. Though he may come off as whiney on occasion, witnessing Lepore’s slow destruction of Stanley’s sanity is moving to watch. He is the eye of the drunk and belligerent storm that unfolds during his birthday party.
The life of this event is the trifecta of the insidious duo Goldberg (co-director John Brackett) and McCann (Appleseed Productions’s artistic director CJ Young) and Stanley’s love interest, the innocently sensual Lulu (Sharon Sorkin). Brackett’s voice is a magnificent instrument. The actor/director’s way with Pinter’s language is like a seductive song. This combined with Young’s stoic playfulness create a dynamic pairthat, although bad news for Stanley, is good news for the audience.
Appleseed Production’s exercise in Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” is not without faults. Even if it is not the play of one’s wishes, the mystery and toxic invective of Pinter’s language makes it a present worth keeping.