The Birthday Party
Reviewed by David Kashimba
Photo by David Allen

Aurora Theatre in Berkeley is now playing one of the best productions of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party that you can ever see. Directed by Tom Ross, it has a cast of some of the best actors in Bay Area Theatre. It is extremely entertaining but mind boggling as are many of his plays and Pinter doesn’t offer much help to audiences who feel this overwhelming need to figure out what his plays are trying to say: “I’m convinced that what happens in my plays could happen anywhere, at any time, in any place, although the events may seem unfamiliar at first glance. If you press me for a definition, I’d say that what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism.”

While Pinter was a registered conscientious objector and refused to serve in the British military during the Berlin Airlift, he was, in his own way, a WWII veteran, experiencing as a teenager the German’s bombing campaigns in London. “The blackout… left a sharp memory,” Pinter recalled to his biographer, Michael Billington. “You lived in a world in which in winter after five o’clock it was totally black… With chinks of light flashing on the horizon… It was also a world that was highly sexual… there was a sexual desperation about the place. People really felt their lives could end tomorrow.”

The trauma that results from such experiences is rendered in The Birthday Party with dark comic brushstrokes. The audience is brought into Stanley’s (James Carpenter) world. An unemployed pianist without a piano, Stanley lives in an old seaside boarding house run by Meg (Phoebe Moyer) and Petey (Chris Ayles). In their own way, Meg and Petey provide some semblance of balance for Stanley. Their conversations are full of opposites like up/down, dark/light, boy/girl, warm/cold, and Meg is always asking if things are “nice.” It’s far from a perfect life, but the stability it provides makes the traumatized Stanley realize that “there’s nowhere else to go.”

Part of Stanley would like to break free from his trauma and the semblance of balance and stability that holds him together, so he makes fun of Meg and does things to shock her. Yet when two new lodgers threaten that stability, his fears and agitations increase.

The new lodgers, Goldberg (Julian Lopez-Morillas) and McCann (Michael Ray Wisely), are bullies at best, hit men at worst, but sometimes it takes something sinister to force someone to change. It’s the possibility of change that seems to frighten Stanley the most. When asked in a 1971 interview about the two ominous new lodgers, Pinter replied: “I suppose that Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party are regarded as an evil pair. But I’m very fond of them.”

All people resist change and self-revelation, but a traumatic event like war only intensifies resistance. “I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is continual evasion, desperate rear-guard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves,” said Pinter at the National Student Drama Festival in 1962. “Communication is too alarming.”

But the creative process of writing a play or novel provides a medium for self-revelation, which at the same time evades revelation, protects the self through a transformation that blossoms into art.

For tickets or more information about this fine production call (510) 843-4822 or visit

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