'Party' Explores Existentialism

Efforts of cast and crew of “The Birthday Party” make for a masterful production

Despite the cheerful and celebratory connotations of its title, Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” is existentialist, absurdist, and dark. The latest performance put on by the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club inspires moments of snort-inducing hilarity even as it elicits gasps. Directed by Matthew C. Stone ’11, the play skillfully explores the notion of identity, a crucial focal point in existentialist theater, while provoking a wide range of emotions from the audience.

“The Birthday Party”, written in 1958, is one of Pinter’s most popular pieces, as well as his first full-length play. Like other existentialist plays, the story is secondary to evoking emotion and provoking an audience reaction.

The play opens in the dining area of a boardinghouse in a coastal area of England, and immediately launches the audience into the dull lives of Petey and Meg, its proprietors. The entrance of Stanley, an irritable, washed-up pianist and the couple’s only client, adds to the monotony that typifies the characters of the play. However, the ominous arrival of two men dressed in dark suits—Goldberg and McCann—disrupts the established tedium. They inspire Meg to throw a birthday party for Stanley which ends in violence and mayhem, but ultimately results in a return to small-town ennui.

This extremely well-cast group of actors successfully captures the contemplative spirit of the play. The disillusioned Stanley is the fulcrum of “The Birthday Party,” played to perfection by Timothy J. Lambert ’11. Through tense body language and agitated growls, Lambert portrays Stanley’s constant state of displeasure and distress. During Stanley’s breakdown, where he is backed against the wall after the party falls apart, Lambert’s maniacal laugh and terse movements create chills.

Nick N. Commins ’09 and Eve H. Bryggman ’10, who play Petey and Meg, respectively, play off of each other well as an unhappily married couple. Though he is not present often, Commins is the first and last character to appear on stage, and his lethargic facial expressions, slouchy posture, and perpetual consternation effectively convey Petey’s anxious character. Meanwhile, Bryggman fidgets around restlessly, capturing completely Meg’s naïveté and eagerness to please. The highlight of Bryggman’s performance is portraying Meg drunk during the birthday party, at which point her inebriated silliness evokes peals of laughter from the audience.

Also outstanding is Antonia M. Peacocke ’12, who brings a breath of fresh air to the performance as Lulu, the young and attractive girl from the neighborhood. As the youngest member of the cast, Peacocke—who is a Crimson arts comper—definitely holds her own, as she effortlessly conveys Lulu’s complexity by highlighting the character’s youthful innocence and desire to be mature.

However, the greatest applause goes to Ben T. Clark ’09, who steals the show with his portrayal of Goldberg, the sweet-talking, temperamental Jewish gangster. Clark’s representation of Goldberg is well complemented by the theatrical efforts of castmate Justin A. Monticello ’09, whose character, McCann, confuses, amuses, and frightens. Monticello’s versatility is remarkable, as he comically shreds newspapers in some scenes, but seethes with frenzied rage in others.

The minimalist set, created under the direction of designer Beth G. Shields ’10, is comprised mainly of a dining table, a few chairs, and a countertop. It highlights the existentialist nature of the play. Sound and lighting are also used sparsely by Stone and Lighting Designer Michael W. Zellmann-Rohrer ’10, but effectively, to heighten the emotions evoked from the audience.

Though the play is hindered at several points by contrived acting, for the most part, the performers effectively and convincingly breathe life to Pinter’s critically acclaimed drama. The dedicated cast and staff work together seamlessly to engage the audience for an emotional two hours, during which innocence is lost, sacrifices are made, and lives are changed forever.