Harold Pinter’s "The Birthday Party" is playing in IU’s Ruth N. Hall’s Theatre. The production, directed by Dale McFadden, brings out the comic elements of the play and does more than justice to the menace and dread in a potent and well acted drama.
Allison Moody and Harper Jones were very funny as Meg and Petey, the bland couple who preside over a rundown lodging house in an English seaside resort. It’s a place where corn flakes are presented as quite a treat, the milk is off and the French toast is as appetizing as a fried sponge. About half their early conversations consist of rote questions from Meg about whether things are "nice" and equally mechanical confirmations from Petey, that indeed they are "very nice."
Their sole boarder is a mysterious character named Stanley played by Josh Hambrock. Stanley is mostly passive, but occasionally bursts out violently under Meg’s mindless care. According to him, he was a person of considerable consequence, though his reminiscence of a failed piano concert career is laughably pathetic.
Into this weird little bubble of surface normalcy, come two mysteriously menacing strangers, Goldberg played by Jeff Grafton, and his "muscle," McCann, Matt Gripe. Their smart suits and the fact that Goldberg is a Jew and McCann an Irishman further separate them from this threadbare, fragilely cozy, English scene. Playwright Pinter has given Goldberg wonderful, sort of motivational speeches They’re full of clichés that are either mangled or just enough off the mark to be both very funny and a bit frightening. Grafton made good use of them and Gripe was a fine foil.
There are darkly comic scenes that must have been read by "The Birthday Party"’s original audiences in the late 1950s as harking back to the Moscow "show trials" of the late 1930s and the brain washing scenes in Orwell’s 1984. Goldberg and McCann take turns in well rehearsed counterpoint, accusing Stanley of crimes from the Albigensian Heresy of the 13th century right up to hints that he informed on the Irish Rebellion in the early 20th. In a deeply ironical act, the two insist on assisting Meg and the neighborly tart Lulu, played nicely by Dawn Thomas, in giving Stanley a birthday party. The daft Meg and the friendly Lulu are totally unaware of the dark underpinnings and threat of what’s going on.
In the morning after the party, Stanley, unable to see with his smashed glasses and unable to speak more than gasps of sounds, is led away by Goldberg and McCann despite token resistance from Petey. Life resumes its pattern. Meg oblivious to it all returns from shopping with more corn flakes and the usual repartee of queries about whether or not things are "nice," and Petey resignedly says "very nice."
Harold Pinter’s dark comedy, "The Birthday Party" plays through Saturday at the IU Theatre. You can find an interview with cast members Harper Jones and Allison Moody on our Arts Interviews page .