Meg (Judith Ivey) and her husband Petey (Dan Hiatt) run an English boarding house somewhere along the seaside in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, through Feb. 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. But they, along with Stanley (Firdous Bamji) their only boarder, might as well have walked through the looking glass. The playwright doesn’t tell us that, of course. Everything about their outside appearance — the drab outfits and the interior decor signaling equally drab lives — is recognizable, even ordinary. It’s their queer use of language that distinguishes the atmosphere these characters are breathing in.
From everyone’s assured performance in this cast, you’d never guess that Pinter wrote the play in 1957. But the words he chose stand outside of any particular time. When Meg questions Petey about his breakfast and the morning newspaper, she seems to relish his terse, banal responses. It’s as if she’s discovering his answers for the first time in her life, newly awake from a sleep that’s wiped her memory clean.
She places a bowl of cornflakes in front of her husband and asks him if they’re nice. And the paper too, Meg wants to know, “Is it good?” Mostly, she receives nods and primal grunts from him. He isn’t unkind, just indifferent. But what begins as a bland exchange between a long-married couple, changes course and departs from the quotidian into stranger territory. The audience can quickly lose its bearings.
Meg continues the breakfast conversation: “But sometimes you go out in the morning and it’s dark.” Petey replies, “That’s in the winter.” Meg: “Oh, in winter.” Petey: “Yes, it gets light later in winter.” Meg ends this exchange with a soft, deflated, “Oh.” It’s a bewildering exchange that sets the tone for what follows. Initially, you want to start asking a series of logical questions to make sense of what’s just occurred and keeps occurring.
How is that Meg has forgotten about seasonal light changes? Is she unwell, afflicted with a memory disorder or a learning disability? Is this her first day on the planet? As Pinter introduces the other characters and pits them against each other in varying degrees of verbal combat and hostility, intellectual logic no longer applies. Often, a character will utter a cliché and then layer another one on top of it and another until each one is emptied of meaning.
Rationally, you notice an accumulation of incomplete, false or misremembered thoughts that cause monologues to stutter and fade out. But the emotional content of what happens on stage does make sense. Meg and Stanley are having an affair, though a reluctant one from his point of view. We learn this after Petey’s gone to work and that his flat affect towards his wife might have been in response to her infidelity. He knows what’s going on between them and has distanced himself from her.
Notably, this production represents A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff‘s final directorial role after 25 years with the company. Pam MacKinnon will succeed her for the 2018-19 season.
When Petey comes home later that day to announce the arrival of two new boarders, Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) and McCann (Marco Barricelli), it’s as if he’s summoned them out of thin air to get rid of Stanley. These men look and sound like a crime boss and his henchman. Pinter though invigorates the worn out trope of gangsters, easily identifiable as trouble, by not telling us exactly who they are. The actors convince us that they’re menacing without the use of concrete language or plotting to do the job for them.
When the birthday party scene does finally arrive in the second act, the playwright has gradually been scrambling our expectations with a sustained sense of unease. There will be a fall, and perhaps, someone’s demise. But the playwright has prepared us for something tragic with his meaningless conversations and by withholding the facts themselves. What the poet John Keats described as negative capability, Pinter has enigmatically achieved with The Birthday Party.
The Birthday Party, through Feb. 4, at A.C.T., 405 Geary St.; 415-749-2228, or act-sf.org.