Review: The Birthday Party
Directed at the Loeb Theater by JoAnne Akalaitis, the production focuses on the events of two days in a boarding house by the sea. First on the scene are Meg (Karen MacDonald) and Petey (Terence Rigby), the old couple who own the boarding house. After they exchange a few pleasantries over breakfast, their longtime boarder Stanley (Thomas Derrah) comes down for breakfast—late, surly and increasingly violent.
Stanley is quickly disturbed by Meg’s announcement that two men are coming to rent a room, yet he refuses to tell her why. When slick Goldberg (Will LeBow) and bumbling yet imposing McCann (Remo Airaldi) finally show up, Stanley is extremely ill at ease because he seems to recognize them. Stanley becomes even more uncomfortable when Meg invites the two men to help her throw him a birthday party, and keeps insisting to the men that it is not even his birthday—but, curiously, not in front of Meg.
An unsettling sense that something is not quite right permeates the play from the very beginning, lurking in the background like the greenish ocean-wave-printed walls on an otherwise unremarkable set. Even ordinary, everyday conversations about breakfast and the weather are disrupted by uncomfortably long pauses. Stanley’s connection to Goldberg and McCann is never explained; neither is Meg’s arbitrary fear of wheelbarrows.
The birthday party itself is an ominous affair, consisting of several toasts to Stanley, for which Goldberg insists on turning out the lights and shining a flashlight in Stanley’s face, as if each toast was a criminal interrogation. After a few drinks, all other characters promptly ignore Stanley.
Slimy, suave Goldberg becomes preoccupied with Lulu (Elizabeth Laidlaw), the perky foreign girl next door, while McCann becomes an amusingly sentimental drunk. Meg continues to be her loopy, cheerful self, and when Lulu suggests a game of Blind Man’s Buff, she agrees to it with delight.
Shortly after the game begins, the power goes out, leaving the characters onstage as “in the dark” literally as the audience is figuratively. A brief moment of light from the flashlight reveals a half-crazed Stanley attacking Lulu, but little else of the evening’s events can be discerned. To add to the confusion, most of the characters fail to remember the evening’s alcohol-fueled mayhem the next morning. All that remains is Lulu’s indignant sense of violation and Stanley’s chilling descent into madness.
The playwright himself believes that this lack of clarity is essential to the play’s purpose, so much so that he refused the original director’s request to add several lines to clarify Stanley’s situation. According to the program, the ART’s artistic directors feel that this ambiguity makes the play more accessible, leaving it open to a variety of psychological, political or even religious interpretations. While this may be true once the audience leaves the theater, it makes the experience of watching The Birthday Party frustrating as one tries to make sense of the arbitrary details and loose ends of each conversation.
Despite the disconcerting plot and ambiguous dialogue, the production is carried by the sheer talent of the actors. Karen MacDonald slips into the role of a cheerfully dotty old woman as if it were her own personality. Thomas Derrah overacts at times, making Stanley’s conversational lines sound like a speech or sermon. His physical acting, however, is simply magnetic, especially in the second act as Stanley’s nervous breakdown becomes complete. Terence Rigby is the play’s “straight man,” whose dry wit and easygoing manner evolves into endearing confidence, culminating in his last line to Stanley: “Don’t let them tell you what to do!”
There is no sense of closure to be gained from the play’s ending, no clear moral or lesson to be found in its entirety. Yet the lines don’t seem connected to anything else, and the questions they raise, linger in the audience’s minds long enough for them to draw their own conclusions—which can be just as powerful as any message explicitly stated onstage.