ACT masters nuances in Pinter’s ‘Birthday Party’

The second act of the late British playwright Harold Pinter’s three-act play “The Birthday Party,” now at American Conservatory Theater, features the birthday party from hell.

The guest of honor is sullen Stanley, who’s been rooming at Meg and Petey’s down-market seaside boarding house for a year, but he says it’s not his birthday at all.

Scatter-brained Meg insists it is; she’s given him a present, a toy drum, because he used to be a pianist (so he says) and now has no piano.

Two mysterious and ominous “gentlemen,” Goldberg and McCann, new arrivals at the boarding house, have a malevolent eye on Stanley.

Party guest Lulu tells Goldberg she trusts him, and sits on his lap, clearly a bad idea.

Everybody’s drunk, more or less, especially dotty Meg and the very un-jovial Irishman McCann, who’s guzzling whiskey straight from the bottle and, in a transcendent moment, sings a yearning Irish ballad.

Then, during a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, the lights go out and everybody shrieks.

Pinter’s a master of the genre that’s been called comedy of menace, and director Carey Perloff captures every nuance of both the absurdist humor and the unsettling atmosphere of the 1957 play, one of Pinter’s earliest.

Perloff first directed it years ago, off-Broadway, with the easy-to-displease Pinter on site; he approved her comic sensibility.

The play is indeed hilarious in a queasy-making sort of way. With Pinter’s writing, as has often been said, characters talk, and talk a lot, not primarily to communicate but rather to manipulate, to gain power. Maybe to feel their own presence in the world.

So there’s always thick subtext. People never seem to say exactly what they mean, and, just as in real life, they often behave very oddly indeed.

But Perloff’s ensemble knows exactly how to bring these idiosyncratic characters to vibrant life.

Scott Wentworth’s Goldberg, all slick surface charm, is chilling, and, as his sidekick, Marco Barricelli’s McCann is a morose, insecure and scary hulk.

Judith Ivey’s dim-witted, good-hearted Meg, forever proudly declaring that her boarding house is “on the list,” is both lovable and annoying, in the best possible way.

In smaller roles, Dan Hiatt as the equally good-hearted but evasive and ultimately ineffectual Petey, and Julie Adamo as flirty Lulu, create complex characters.

And Firdous Bamji is a multi-faceted Stanley whose journey from a sort of hostile despondency to terror and well beyond, is deeply, and wonderfully, disturbing.

The Birthday Party
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays and Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, closes Feb. 4
Tickets: $25 to $90
Contact: (415) 749-2228,

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