by Harold Pinter (1958)
Directed by JoAnne Akalaitis
American Repertory Theatre at Loeb Drama Center
64 Brattle St., Harvard Sq., Cambridge / (617) 547 - 8300
through March 27



by Joe Orton ( 1967)
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Huntington Theatre Company
264 Huntington Ave. Boston / (617) 266 - 0800
through April 4

Reviewed by Will Stackman

A decade separates the two British scripts currently being revived by the two large companies in Boston, both with University ties. Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, which has no American plays in its current schedule, is famous for reinventing scripts it revives. Director JoAnne Akalaitis' subterranean A.R.T. production "Endgame" was disowned by Beckett, though her version of "The Balcony" found a level of surrealism that matched Genet's text. Thus her rather straight-forward reading of Harold Pinter's juvenile faux thriller, "The Birthday Party" may perhaps be their least outre performance of the season, though its author would probably reject Akalaitis' touches of stylized acting, and complain about Paul Steinberg's looming set, which combines tatty period furniture with forced architectural detail--including moving walls--with a background based on photomurals of rippling water. This production is certainly the most coherent effort to show up at the Loeb in a long time, thanks largely to company veterans, plus a top-drawer RNT actor and seasoned actress from Chicago.

The object of Pinter's paranoia in this early piece, Stanley, an out-of-work concertparty piano player, is played by Thomas Derrah, who only perches on the furniture a few times during the show. Stan's relationship with Meg, his out-of-touch landlady, done by Karen MacDonald, has comic eroticism echoing the pair's recent more intimate encounters in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Meg's husband, Petey, British actor Terence Rigby, has the requisite sheep-like demeanor to his occupation of renting beach chairs, a trait which pays off at play's end. The villains of the piece, borrowed from Hemingway and/or Ionesco, are two strangers sent for Stan; Goldberg, nattily played by Will LeBow and McCann, given a unique character by Remo Airaldi. Even stranger is Elizabeth Laidlaw's Lulu, whose Carnaby St. attire is the only real suggestion of the play's period. That and the black and white TV which plays soundlessly on stage left throughout the evening. Lulu's foreign accent is never explained or whether this improbable party girl is part of the plot, if there is one.

Yet the devil is in the details, and it's details which Akalaitis 's production gets right. The least obvious but possibly most important is Bruce Odland's almost constant soundscape, often barely audible, mixing sounds of the sea, music stings, and period pop underneath the action. Steinberg's set stays largely in the background once the initial gag of a kitchen pass through window six feet off the floor has its day. Stanley's pajamas become the norm, so that when he finally appears in a suit matching those worn by his two tormentors, there's a sense of finality. This production uses carefully chosen particulars to arrive at a more general sense of inevitability. The lights go from fully theatrical to moments illumined by only a single flashlight. It's not necessary in this tale to know why things happen, but that they do. The script may be from the heyday of England's Angry Young Men, but the situation is Orwellian, and the vision Kafkaesque, despite the author's wish that it be taken literally. The director, true to her own Mabou Mines background, has carefully mixed 20th century styles, including surrealism and the absurd with acting which goes from stylized to naturalistic at the blink of an eye, without indulging in pointless experiment.

The comedy being revived by at the Huntington is played much straighter, which leads to the following questions. When is a particular farce no longer funny enough? When the social situation it lampoons has lost its relevance? When the play's provocative antics can be seen midday midweek on soap operas--though admittedly not intended to be humorous in the current setting? When satirizing Britain's decline has been more fully explored by the Python crew? Joe Orton's studied anarchy hasn't held up any better than his second-rate epigrams, particularly when done Brit-com style on an overly precious set. Darko's Tresnjak's set of regional theatre comedians manages to get through the mechanics of the piece without finding any real basis for their characters or for the comedy.

This revival uses the published text, including a panto finale featuring Churchill's penis in bronze which couldn't be performed in London in the late '60s, after the author's murder. Now is forty years too late. "What the Butler Saw", as an example of theatre as voyeurism has become an academic favorite, but its predecessors, "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" and "Loot" probably have more relevance today. At least their strong opinions can be debated. With its almost Dickensian resolution, this play is too easily dismissed, taking English farce only a notch beyond "No Sex, Please; We're British."

Still the Huntington's audience, which embraced "Betty's Summer Vacation" seems satisfied with the goings on. T.V's Paxton Whitehead, as the officious Dr. Rance, plays his patented upperclass twit with no real menace, and is hence unfortunately likable. Tim Donahue, as randy Dr. Prentice, on leave from his perennial role as Kissinger in "Nixon's Nixon"--seen two years ago at the Huntington--doesn't rise above his plaid polyester pants in this role. After all, his character does have most of the low comic bits. Amy Van Nostrand, playing his nympho wife was more erotic as Hesione in "Heartbreak House" two seasons ago. Her previous night's conquest, hotel pageboy Nicholas played by Roderick Hill is tall, decoratively blonde, and funniest in drag. Veteran actor John Seidman, who got his start with LaGallienne, is perfectly believable as the bobby, Sergeant March, on Nicholas' trail for assaulting some schoolgirls after Mrs. Prentice . The copper is also searching for the private parts of a heroic statue of Sir Winston. Unfortunately, Officer Match as written isn't very funny most of the time, and directorial attempts to make him so are unsuccessful. And finally, there's Susan O'Connor as Geraldine, the young office temp Dr. Prentice attempts to seduce in the opening scene, setting the evening's toing and froing in motion. Her grimaces are more effective than her lines. She also figures in the search for the missing member. The entire cast is too deliberate at trying to pump up this unfinished farrago.

Another spiffy symmetrical set by David P. Gordon, costumery by Linda Cho in '60s colors and hemlines, and theatrical lighting and sound neither helps or hinders the play, even at the end. The whole exercise is just a bit tiresome, in need of radical rethinking rather than highgrade stock production. The Huntington might have done better to go back to its old playbook and revive a vrai farce from Feydeau like "The Lady from Maxims'" rather than this dated sendup of a British imitation written by a professional badboy. Orton's iconic status as a symbol of gay fearlessness seems much diminished over the decades. This script might still work in an intimate space set realistically and played for maximum speed. It founders in this production

Each of these outings ostensibly seek to find contemporary relevance in scripts which were provocative half a century ago. Nowadays both read better than they play if their authors' are taken at face value. The A.R.T.'s judicious surrealism gets more life out of Pinterís text than the Huntington's glossy production of Ortonís , but in both cases, newer or older scripts might have been a better use of the talent involved. These safe choices may keep subscribers happy however.

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