Judith Ivey and Firdous Bamji are excellent in American Conservatory Theater’s “The Birthday Party.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Judith Ivey and Firdous Bamji are excellent in American Conservatory Theater’s “The Birthday Party.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

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, act-sf.org
American Conservatory TheaterBirthday PartyCarey PerloffFirdous BamjiHarold PinterJudith IveyTheater

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

A San Francisco Unified School District program that gave would-be teachers extra training in the classroom has lost a key partner. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/2019 S.F. Examiner)</ins>
USF ends partnership with SFUSD in teacher residency program

District launched training effort to improve low retention rates for new hires

The Rev. Norman Fong of the Chinatown Community Development Center joined San Francisco city leaders and community partners in a “Campaign for Solidarity” at Civic Center Plaza on Saturday, Apr 17, 2021. (CraigLee/Special to the S.F. Examiner)
City launches ‘Campaign for Solidarity’ to combat racial violence

Mayor London Breed, the city’s Human Rights Commission and community leaders launched… Continue reading

It’s time to break the code of silence and end the stigmatism against infertility, which is fairly common. <ins>(Shuttterstock)</ins>
Struggles with infertility are common

We all can support friends, ask legislators to mandate sppropriate insurance

Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs spoke to San Francisco’s new Guaranteed Income Advisory Group on April 16. (Courtesy SFGOV)
City launches task force to explore Universal Basic Income programs

San Francisco on Friday launched a guaranteed income task force that could… Continue reading

Muni’s K-Ingleside line will return six months earlier than previously announced. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
K-Ingleside train to return on May 15

Announcement comes on the heels of pressure from Supervisor Myrna Melgar

Most Read