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Absurdist inquisition

The Birthday Party at New Fortune Theatre is funny, until it isn't.

Richard Bairde, Max Macke, Matthew Henerson in The Birthday Party at New Fortune Theatre - Image by Daren Scott
Richard Bairde, Max Macke, Matthew Henerson in The Birthday Party at New Fortune Theatre

The Birthday Party

  • Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
  • $21 - $26

When a young actor, Harold Pinter needed a place to stay at a rainy, seaside town. A man in a pub suggested a nearby boarding house, but couldn’t vouch for its cleanliness. Pinter lodged in the “filthy” joint, run by a randy landlady and her docile husband. The man in the pub also stayed there. He used to play piano, he said, but gave it up. Asked why he hadn’t moved on, the man replied, “there’s nowhere else to go.”

Pinter wondered what would happen if two men were “coming down to get him.” To find out, he wrote his first full-length play, The Birthday Party.

Pinter never says who the two men, Goldberg and McCann, are. In effect, they’re the ubiquitous “they” responsible for all manner of evil. And “they” might even have picked the wrong house, since neither checked the address. No matter, they’re here to rain down on hapless Stanley, who once played piano — maybe, he could just be fantasizing about a more innocent time. He’s stayed at the boarding house since “there’s nowhere to go.”

Amanda Schaar and Matthew Henerson in The Birthday Party at New Fortune Theatre

Stanley recalls a piano concert he performed at Lower Edmonton to grateful listeners. But after that, “they carved me up.” The listeners? Someone else? He never says why, just that “I’d like to know who was responsible for that.”

Maybe Goldberg and McCann? Or the organization they represent? Maybe not. No matter. Stanley fits their profile. They perform an absurdist inquisition guaranteed to break him down.

People have fretted for years about who they represent — church officials, Mafia thugs, spy-spooks, state police, or today’s Men in Black? But identifying specifics misses the point. It doesn’t matter who they are (plug in personal paranoia here) it’s what they do — and how many candidates now fit that profile.

New Fortune Theatre opened its doors with a stunning production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Honoring its pledge to stage the classics and classic contemporary works, the company leaps from St. Crispin’s Day, 1415, to an unnamed, English seaside town, 1958. The leap is impressive.

Birthday Party has earned the label “a comedy of menace,” since it moves inexorably toward a horrific showdown (Pinter said life is funny; then comes a point when it isn’t). The production has the menace down pat, but needs to shore up the comedy.

Especially the play’s Big Scene, where Goldberg and McCann interrogate poor Stanley. It’s cruel, verbal waterboarding, but it’s also a scream — in the freaky sense, since some of the questions (“Is the number 846 possible or necessary?”) and accusations (“You’re a plague gone bad”) are hall-of-fame non sequiturs. On opening night, the scene played so fast and loud the words blurred.

Richard Baird, who also directed, gives a brilliantly detailed performance as McCann, a psychopathic time bomb who tears paper for reasons unknown but somehow understandable. Though he has some fine moments as Goldberg, Matthew Henerson needs to lighten up. He steams and fumes with too much force for the character, the Moxie playing space, and what should be an absurdist vaudeville routine with McCann.

Looking like he slept in an alley and awoke to a nightmare, Max Macke does an anguished, and courageous, turn as tormented Stanley.

Amanda Shaar’s Lulu is naivete personified, though her green party dress and Marty Burnett’s otherwise-appealing set look far too new for the old boarding house.

Dana Hooley gives Meg more layers than a geological dig. Meg may be “shallow,” but her dreams and desires run deep. As her practically mute husband Petey, who utters the play’s most famous line, Marcus Overton makes much from little. Simple gestures and slight glances suggest that Petey’s seen this play before — and maybe even performed in it as Stanley.

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Richard Bairde, Max Macke, Matthew Henerson in The Birthday Party at New Fortune Theatre - Image by Daren Scott
Richard Bairde, Max Macke, Matthew Henerson in The Birthday Party at New Fortune Theatre

The Birthday Party

  • Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
  • $21 - $26

When a young actor, Harold Pinter needed a place to stay at a rainy, seaside town. A man in a pub suggested a nearby boarding house, but couldn’t vouch for its cleanliness. Pinter lodged in the “filthy” joint, run by a randy landlady and her docile husband. The man in the pub also stayed there. He used to play piano, he said, but gave it up. Asked why he hadn’t moved on, the man replied, “there’s nowhere else to go.”

Pinter wondered what would happen if two men were “coming down to get him.” To find out, he wrote his first full-length play, The Birthday Party.

Pinter never says who the two men, Goldberg and McCann, are. In effect, they’re the ubiquitous “they” responsible for all manner of evil. And “they” might even have picked the wrong house, since neither checked the address. No matter, they’re here to rain down on hapless Stanley, who once played piano — maybe, he could just be fantasizing about a more innocent time. He’s stayed at the boarding house since “there’s nowhere to go.”

Amanda Schaar and Matthew Henerson in The Birthday Party at New Fortune Theatre

Stanley recalls a piano concert he performed at Lower Edmonton to grateful listeners. But after that, “they carved me up.” The listeners? Someone else? He never says why, just that “I’d like to know who was responsible for that.”

Maybe Goldberg and McCann? Or the organization they represent? Maybe not. No matter. Stanley fits their profile. They perform an absurdist inquisition guaranteed to break him down.

People have fretted for years about who they represent — church officials, Mafia thugs, spy-spooks, state police, or today’s Men in Black? But identifying specifics misses the point. It doesn’t matter who they are (plug in personal paranoia here) it’s what they do — and how many candidates now fit that profile.

New Fortune Theatre opened its doors with a stunning production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Honoring its pledge to stage the classics and classic contemporary works, the company leaps from St. Crispin’s Day, 1415, to an unnamed, English seaside town, 1958. The leap is impressive.

Birthday Party has earned the label “a comedy of menace,” since it moves inexorably toward a horrific showdown (Pinter said life is funny; then comes a point when it isn’t). The production has the menace down pat, but needs to shore up the comedy.

Especially the play’s Big Scene, where Goldberg and McCann interrogate poor Stanley. It’s cruel, verbal waterboarding, but it’s also a scream — in the freaky sense, since some of the questions (“Is the number 846 possible or necessary?”) and accusations (“You’re a plague gone bad”) are hall-of-fame non sequiturs. On opening night, the scene played so fast and loud the words blurred.

Richard Baird, who also directed, gives a brilliantly detailed performance as McCann, a psychopathic time bomb who tears paper for reasons unknown but somehow understandable. Though he has some fine moments as Goldberg, Matthew Henerson needs to lighten up. He steams and fumes with too much force for the character, the Moxie playing space, and what should be an absurdist vaudeville routine with McCann.

Looking like he slept in an alley and awoke to a nightmare, Max Macke does an anguished, and courageous, turn as tormented Stanley.

Amanda Shaar’s Lulu is naivete personified, though her green party dress and Marty Burnett’s otherwise-appealing set look far too new for the old boarding house.

Dana Hooley gives Meg more layers than a geological dig. Meg may be “shallow,” but her dreams and desires run deep. As her practically mute husband Petey, who utters the play’s most famous line, Marcus Overton makes much from little. Simple gestures and slight glances suggest that Petey’s seen this play before — and maybe even performed in it as Stanley.

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