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The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

directed by ANDREW J. ROBINSON

Lisa Akey & Rachel Robinson as "Lulu"
Gloria Dorson & Angela Paton as "Meg"
Ralph Drischell & Robert Symonds as "Petey"
Morlan Higgins & Gregory Itzin as "McCann"
Jay Karnes & Raphael Sbarge as "Stanley"
Lawrence Pressman & Armin Shimerman as "Goldberg"


- WINNER, 2001 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award:

Featured Performance (Gregory Itzin)

- WINNER, 2001 L.A. Weekly Award:
Best Revival Production


L.A. Times, Friday, September 28, 2001 - CRITIC'S CHOICE

"Birthday Party" Keeps Its Theatrical Charge
by Don Shirley

Poor Stanley. He's wasting away in a rundown boarding-house, virtually a recluse, yet two menacing men have come to cart him away—on the day that his landlady insists is his birthday. It's party time.

"The Birthday Party" was the first of Harold Pinter's plays to be produced in London. Now, more than 40 years later, this vintage Pinter retains its theatrical charge in a Matrix Theatre production. As with all Matrix productions, every role is double cast. Judging from two performances last weekend, most of the actors are better than good, and you probably won't regret seeing any of them. However, in the pivotal role of Stanley, I've got to go with Jay Karnes.

Especially in his first scene, when he shares breakfast with his landlords, Karnes emits his gravelly growls with split-second timing that produces some major laughs. His gestures are more extravagant than those of the production's other Stanley, Raphael Sbarge, who's good enough but doesn't offer anything quite as distinctive as Karnes' work. In most of the other roles, the differences are equally striking, but they don't matter much because either interpretation is equally interesting.

Angela Paton and Gloria Dorson are both brilliant as the landlady.  Paton is more fluttery, feminine and has an especially piercing gaze.  Dorson looks more intimidating as she projects her half-maternal, half-seductive advances toward Stanley. In the smaller role of her husband, Robert Symonds has a more irascible, impatient edge than does Ralph Drischell's kindlier, more angular old man.

Playing Goldberg, the leader of the two intruders, Armin Shimerman is compact, wiry, Cagney-esque, and he spits out his phony bonhomie with glittering precision.  Lawrence Pressman is bigger, more of a natural bruiser, but he too hacks his way through Pinter's words with uncommon clarity.

On opening weekend. Pressman was paired with Morlan Higgins as the chief thug, and Shimerman with Gregory Itzin. Higgins looks a little more capable of thuggery than Itzin, so it's easy to imagine him working well with either Pressman or Shimerman.  But if Pressman is matched with Itzin, there might be some minor confusion over which is the enforcer.

Of course, there are plenty of fascinating details that we're not supposed to understand in this play - out of such details grows the play's reputation for mystery.  So any way of matching these actors is probably going to have its compensations. Both Higgins and Itzin have mastered the thug's impatient, brass-tacks quality.

Rachel Robinson and Lisa Akey play a neighbor well, but without quite the same personal styles seen in the larger roles.

Under Andrew J. Robinson's direction, this "Party" is an edge-of-the-chair experience.


BackStage West - CRITIC'S PICK

Reviewed by Scott Proudfit

Early in his career, Harold Pinter received a letter from a woman who had seen one of his shows (I believe it was The Caretaker). She wrote that she had only three questions for the author: Who were these characters? What did they do for a living? And why should she care about them? Pinter wrote back, "I would be happy to answer your questions, but first I need to know three things: Who are you? What do you do for a living? And why should I care about you?"

Apocryphal or not, this anecdote gets to the heart of the interests and methods of one of our greatest living playwrights. His point, of course, is that interaction between people, dramatic or otherwise, is not dependent on backstory or social position. Pinter is not fascinated by how, say, a plumber with abandonment issues interacts with a wealthy businessman with an Oedipus complex. Rather, his fascination is how language, universally, is used to connect with, dominate, seduce, and destroy others. In short, his plays are more about language than plot, more about how characters interact moment-to-moment than how they change through the course of the play.

Which is not to say that rich, full characters do not emerge from his writing— and the Matrix Theatre Company's flawless production of The Birthday Party is no exception—but they are more fluid and changing than the characters we are used to seeing onstage, and perhaps ultimately more realistic.

Director Andrew J. Robinson gets Pinter. And it's fitting that this production, among the finest I've seen of Pinter's work, takes place at a theatre company that by needs must deal with a kind of constant change in its process, must always be ready for little adjustments in performance— because the Matrix double-casts and mixes together different actors throughout the run. This gives its productions a fresh, in-the-moment feel no matter when in the run we see them.

One of the playwright's earliest works, The Birthday Party focuses on a lethargic boarder at a seaside B&B, the doting and dotty old lady who runs the place, and the two thugs who show up there looking for him. Like many of his younger plays, there is an element of menace, of underworld threats and reprisals, at work in the text. Thugs threatening innocents was an easy way for Pinter to examine how words clearly lacerate or soothe. He later realized the same kind of interactions occur just as often in happy suburban families.

For reviewing purposes, reviewers saw completely different casts over two evenings. Both productions were excellent, though different in tone and pace. As the leader of the two heavies, Goldberg, the biggest talker in the play (and therefore the most dominating), I preferred Armin Shimerman's flashier, more disturbed turn to Lawrence Pressman's more controlled, sympathetic take. However, it's essentially a toss-up. Where Shimerman dances around his victim, Pressman playfully pokes him. It's simply a matter of taste. As Goldberg's assistant, the brute McCann, I preferred Gregory Itzin's at-turns menacing and childlike performance to Morlan Higgins' simple bully. This is an interesting case in which playing against type can often bring out an actor's strengths. Itzin is not a big man, more castable as a bright neurotic than a thick-headed heavy. However, perhaps it's the challenge of having to play up to this unfamiliar type that gives his performance a vitality and edge that are truly enjoyable.

As the mysterious boarder Stanley, Raphael Sbarge is more jumpy and terrified than the more sarcastic, assured Jay Kames. As the fawning, slightly confused woman of the house, Meg, Gloria Dorson is sweeter and more gentle than the at-times funnier, more vacant Angela Paton. For my taste, Sbarge and Dawson were more compelling but only by degrees.

Likewise, I found Rachel Robinson's innocence as Lulu, a local girl who gets mixed up the intimidation of Stanley, preferable to Lisa Akey's bolder take. And while Robert Symonds and Ralph Drischell were fantastic as Meg's good-hearted husband Petey, Drischell just looks the part more deliciously.

Robinson's design team cleverly mixes the theatrical with the mundane. Of particular note are Victoria Profitt's set and J. Kent Inasy's lights. Rather than adhering to a naturalistic set-up, Inasy changes focus and mood along with the text, going from stylized spotlit monologues to red, expressionist washes during the most menacing moments. And Profitt's semi-transparent set supports such dramatic effects as silhouettes cast through walls yet snaps back in an instant to kitchen-sink realism.

The central theatrical metaphor in The Birthday Party is a game of blindman's buff, in which the characters reach out in the darkness trying to hurt, hug, or escape from the others. Likewise, Robinson's intelligent, exciting production of The Birthday Party reaches out of the darkness of a 99-Seat theatre scene that often avoids the most mentally challenging material in favor of irony and image. And it connects in a big way.

New Times, Oct 11-17, 2001

Pinter's "Birthday Party" is a shadowy celebration of sudden violence and frayed nerves.

by Edmund Newton

Harold Pinter's early plays often feel like old black-and-white movies. His 1959 play The Birthday Party, a new production of which is playing now at the Matrix Theatre, recalls the 1946 Burt Lancaster film The Killers, based on Ernest Hemingway's short story; Pinter gives us the same kind of drab, shadowy surroundings, the underworld figures, the threat of violence, the ordinary sad sacks at the mercy of forces over which they have no control But Pinter likes to take a noir story and rough it up even more. He slaps the sense out of the plot and pumps it up with a distinctive sort of supercharged Pinteresque tension. Then, while the old gangster story lies there quivering, Pinter splashes it with a cupful of farce. The result, in this production anyway, is a brusque, thudding experience that's horrifying and hilarious at the same time.

The Birthday Party focuses on Stanley (Jay Karnes), a charmless British loafer whose ambition seems to have checked out long ago. When he hauls himself out of bed in the morning, wearing an awful-looking gray undershirt, his hair plastered to the side of his head like a tuft of crab grass, he likes to bitch about his breakfast and flirt idly with his landlady. Stanley used to play the piano at a restaurant out on the local pier, but now he just Iies around the British seaside boarding house-where he lives. Of course, Stanley's uneventfully complacent life is about to be interrupted by some menacing characters who have come to take him back to a place from which he has escaped.

Here's where Pinter departs from the noir realists and wanders into Kafka territory. In the Hemingway story, the victim is an ex-boxer who has double crossed some gangsters. But here, the crime is Stanley's failure to live up to some kind of vaguely defined standard. Two enforcers, Goldberg and McCann, arrive unexpectedly, looking for Stanley. They grill him, in a harsh, rapid-fire interrogation, about his abandonment of "the organization," his failure to pray, the death of his wife (Stanley says he was never married) and the number 846. "Is the number 846 possible or necessary?" snaps Goldberg. We're left with the feeling that Stanley is being brusquely introduced to his own nightmares.

The cast at the Matrix, under the direction of Andrew J. Rub in son, have great fun with the dispirited lower-mid die-class characters who turn up in English boarding houses. The walls of the place (in Victoria Profitt's spare, forbidding set) look finger-stained, the few pieces of furniture have been kicked around for a few years, and you can almost smell the stale food and insecticide drifting out of the kitchen. In this unlikely setting, the characters, led by the gabby Goldberg (Lawrence -Pressman), hold a nightmarish but weirdly funny birthday party for Stanley, who by now is a trembling bundle of nerves.

Goldberg (as in all Matrix productions, there's double casting, and the references here are to those who performed the night I attended) is the impresario for the event. He's a recognisable English type: the ersatz gentleman, raconteur, philosopher of ordinary life. Pressman is priceless in the role, playing the character like a Toastmasters instructor with a streak of violence but brimming with rhetorical flourishes. Describing "Uncle-Barney," the absent capo of the organization, Goldberg says: "Respected by the whole community. Culture? Don't talk to me about culture. He was an all-around man..." Of course, nobody was talking about culture. Goldberg's foil is the gunsel McCann (a rigidly unsmiling but impeccably polite Morlan Higgins), who obsessively tears pieces of newspaper into long strips. The conversation between the two is as ordinary as if they were a couple of plumbers installing a shower.

Angela Paton is fine as Meg, the landlady, an English Edith Bunker who has an absurd crush on Stanley. She's the kind of person for whom irony or sarcasm are speeding trains that rush past unnoticed, but she has a certain fragile charm that occasionally elevates her above the dust of her surroundings. By why fool with Stanley? Jay Karnes is convincingly worthless, a self involved slug whose only grate is a crooked smile, which he uses when he's trying to plead his way out of Golberg and McCann's snare.

The party - a "booze up," as Stanley calls it — deteriorates from civilized toasts for Stanley to a drunken game of blind man's bluff.  Goldberg trots out some of the old breezy pub palaver and seduces a young woman (Rachel Robinson), another one of Stanley's dubious admirers. There's one funny exchange in which Goldberg, ogling the young woman like a character in a Benny Hill skit, gets her to sit on his lap, then suavely eases her off when he develops a pain in his hip. By then, of course, Stanley is a voiceless wreck, so whipped that Goldberg and McCann can move him around like he's a piece of furniture. As bizarre as the party and subsequent events are, there's a feeling of everyday life to them. The language is never so over the-top that it couldn't have been expressed by ordinary English people, and the characters, even the two enforcers, are recognizable for their ordinariness. That's Pinter's genius, of course: finding the threatening in the commonplace, pulling the .38 out of the bag of groceries.

The Hollywood Reporter, September 25, 2001

'Birthday' Gift for Pinter
Matrix company gets it right for scribe's 70th

by Ed Kaufman

Somehow it seems fining that the Matrix Theatre Company would celebrate English playwright Harold Pinter's 70th birthday with an eloquent revival of his classic "The Birthday Party," written in 1958 and his first full-length play.

With any production of Pinter, the trick is to get it right: all of the ambiguities, nuances, silences, cadences/rhythms — and, most essentially, the wordplay — a lot of it absurd or banal — and outlandish comedy. Sort of minimalist art meets Samuel Beckett — by way of Noel Coward.

You can rest assured, the Matrix has got it right in a production that is assured, crisp, rich in ambiguity and humor and full of Pinteresque suspense and menace.

Credit Andrew J. Robinson for deft, savvy direction and actors Ralph Drischell, Gloria Dorson, Raphael Sbarge, Lisa Akey, Armin Shimerman and Gregory Itzin for their mesmerizing performances. As is its policy, the Matrix will double-cast, and no two performances will be the same during the show's run through Dec. 2 at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles.

On the surface, "Birthday" seems simple enough. Slovenly, disheveled Stanley (Sbarge) lives in the shabby seaside boarding house (the effective drab set of Victoria Profitt) of elderly Petey (Drischell) and his vacuous, matronly wife Meg (Dorson). While Petey reads his paper, Meg putters about and teases/spoils her boarder.

Suddenly, two men take rooms for the night. One is the well-dressed, talkative Goldberg (Shimerman) and the other the surly, brutish McCann (Itzin). A real Mutt and Jeff combo — only it becomes clear that the two have come to collect Stanley. When Goldberg learns that it is Stanley's birthdav (though Stanley denies it), he plans a birthday partv with Meg and the flirtatious young neighbor Lulu (Akey). As the party goes on, the terrified Stanley sits as if in a trance.

Are Goldberg and McCann foreign agents sent to deal with a traitor? Attendants from a local asylum? Their motives and identities are never revealed.

Pinter makes us work below the stated text. Stanley is literally and figuratively re-created by twin father figures Goldberg and McCann, but only after they have smashed his psyche and soul. When last we see Stanley, he wears a three-piece banker's suit and black bowler hat, is practically blind and babbles incoherently.

Also, read a profile of The Birthday Party's set designer, Victoria Profitt

Producer: Joseph Stern
Scenic Design: Victoria Profitt
Lighting Design: J. Kent Inasy
Costume Design: Maggie Morgan
Property Design: Chuck Olsen
Stage Manager: Anna Belle Gilbert
Casting Director: Marilyn Mandel
Dramaturge: Peter J. Nieves
General Manager: Kimberly Braasch
Assistant Director: Irene Robinson
Assistant Costumer: Leslie Kharma
Photographer: Michael Lamont

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