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The Birthday Party at Aurora Theatre

A Bit of Schadenfreude You Can Live With

Fifty years ago, playwrights like Harold Pinter were amassing scathing reviews and death threats, but now the thespian trademark of self-conscious menace and making spectators squirm in their seats is just par for the course. After all, it’s inarguable -- awash as we are in pop culture froth and the constantly impending threat of censorship -- that schadenfreude and shock value are the unspoken standards of modern theater.

Now, you can spot the Pinter knockoffs from miles away; take brilliant protégé Martin MacDonagh, whose menacing satire "The Pillowman" is currently enjoying a talked-about run at the Berkeley Rep. That doesn’t, however, make Pinter’s brand of caustic farce obsolescent. In fact, if you’re itching to check out McDonagh’s play, you might want to consider first ambling next door to the diminutive Aurora Theatre to experience Pinter’s 1957 classic, "The Birthday Party".

When Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, the Swedish Academy summed up the scribe as one who “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.” "The Birthday Party’s" brand of cloistered social anxiety perfectly evinces this. Indeed, Pinter’s superlative parable of derangement and despotism is a precursor to the predictable arc that most dark comedies tend to take. It’s such a classic that it’s difficult to judge it on its own terms without dragging the onus of mid-century playwriting into the picture, but Artistic Director Tom Ross opts for authenticity rather than innovation, which is why the Aurora’s version works so well.

At the center of Ross’ murky tableau is Stanley (played by a brilliantly haunted and unkempt James Carpenter), our hero and a clearly disoriented recluse/has-been pianist addled with paranoia, poor social skills, and slipshod style. Stanley bobs along without much to-do in an out-of-the-way seaside boardinghouse, besieged by an unexplainable combination of fear, hubris, and impotent cri de coeurs against society. Stanley pretty much goes about his business on his own, with the proprietors Petey and Meg (played by Chris Ayles and Phoebe Moyer) occasionally popping in for cornflakes and tea. Ayles and Moyer, whose perkiness seems almost baneful, artfully present the dead-ended simple life that inspired Pinter to pen his play in the first place.

The plot thickens when the play’s only other boarder, Lulu (played by a ditzy yet comely Emily Jordan), develops an unlikely crush on Stanley, whose recidivism manifests itself in sneering misogyny and other such charming abuses. (Apparently, there are no other suitable bachelors in town.) Things get even weirder when two black-suited, silver-tongued drifters, the avuncular Goldberg (Julian Lopez Morillas) and the more straightforward, brass-knuckled lout McCann (Michael Ray Wisely) stop in for Stanley’s birthday party. Presumably, they’re metaphorical stand-ins for what we could take to be an underground criminal ring or a tyrannical government but neither the other characters nor the audience know what they want or who exactly they represent. Given that Pinter, despite his almost-maddening penchant for mundanity, is anything but forthright, all the cryptic goings-on seem apropos. As Goldberg and McCann inculcate cooperation from Stanley and ask him a bunch of revealing questions that indicate the main character’s shady past, a drunken brouhaha at Stanley’s birthday party ensues, complete with games of Blind Man’s Buff and bloody interrogation sequences.

It’s interesting to note that Goldberg and McCann are, respectively, Jewish and Irish -- the two most persecuted groups in Great Britain at the time Pinter was writing. It’s believable that Pinter, a staunch political activist, was constructing a parable about paranoia, culpability, and the desire for refuge from one’s own transgressions. But at the same time, Pinter’s entire gestalt is full of interpretive conundrums. He is a saboteur of expectation, and in "The Birthday Party", an easy satirical trope becomes an unwieldy journey through nauseatingly stuffy parlors and cloudy motivations.

This kind of oppressiveness percolates through all of Pinter’s work, but without any familiar handholds to keep spectators safe and unruffled. Pinter’s closest cinematic counterpart is David Lynch; both blanket audiences in the same miasma of confusion-cum-familiarity that makes total comprehension impossible. Even the most sapless of moments in this play are pregnant with about a gazillion different meanings, making smart, self-congratulatory theater buffs peevishly scratch their heads.

There is both comedy and poetry in Ross’ production. Richard Olmsted’s appalling tasteless set, full of clunky old furniture and cabbage-rose wallpaper, is delightfully macabre, while lighting designer Christopher Studley injects the scenes with occasional bouts of otherworldly incandescence. As a meaty three-act, the play’s self-containment can be a bit exacting at times, but the actors are full of enough verve and risible material to keep audiences on edge. Overall, it’s a play that’ll fill viewers with appreciation for Pinter’s masterful restraint and enigmatic penchant for mystery, which, trite as it may seem to us today, can’t be pegged as anything below convention-breaking.

Runs through March 11
at Aurora Theatre
Tickets: $38

Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street (at Shattuck)
Berkeley, CA