It is a measure of the tremendous artistic presence here that, after nearly thirty years living in this neck of the woods, one can still discover somewhat hidden venues. In what looks like a former auto body shop, behind a big yellow house off Hillsborough Road in Durham, sits Common Ground Theatre. (It is not nearly as difficult to find as their website says). Despite my unawareness, this theater has just celebrated their sixth anniversary, and they have chosen to do so with one of the most celebrated plays of the twentieth century. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Jay O'Berski Artistic Director, gives us a superb presentation of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party.
Premiered in Cambridge, England, in 1958, it had a somewhat positive reception, but after its debut in London it was almost universally lambasted and closed after only eight performances. The Birthday Party became the leading voice of a new genre of theater called "comedy of menace," and that is a perfect characterization of this two-hour combustion of our fears and anxieties.
We enter the theater actually crossing the "stage" to get to our seats that are comprised of four rows, with room for approximately sixty people. The set consists of a simple room in a boarding house in a British seaside town: a formica dining room set, an easy chair, and a sideboard. We meet Petey (Dan Sipp) and Meg (Lenore Field), the owners of the establishment. Their banter, especially by Meg, immediately introduces us to the cadence and flavor of Pinter's madhouse. A combination of humor, syncopation, and underlying foreboding is palpable. Of course, like bringing the notes on a score to life, the play – to the audience – is only as good as the actors. Both Sipp and Field have a long list of engagements with many theater companies in the Triangle, and they are only the start of exemplary performances in very demanding parts.
Most of the action revolves around the alleged birthday boy, Stanley (Jeffrey Detwiler), the upstairs boarder who is a failed pianist and a generally disheveled individual without any redeemable qualities. There is news that two men will be coming to the house who will be potential boarders. Goldberg and McCann arrive, and they reek of mystery and potential for violence. Played by Derrick Ivey and Jay O'Berski, respectively, these roles are a nonstop kaleidoscope of inane chatter, unexpected and nonsensical attacks, and really loud screaming. This gruesome twosome was so well-played by Ivey and O'Berski that they sometimes overwhelmed the other actors. Lulu (Dana Marks), is the final piece of this psycho sextuplet. She is a young sexy woman who more or less just appears as Stanley's "friend," later to be groped and fondled by Goldberg.
The actual birthday party becomes a cesspool of human debauchery. Meg, wearing a dress that reminds one of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, gets drunk and sings poorly, Goldberg and McCann psychologically waterboard Stanley, and games are played that bring out the worst in everyone.
Sounds confusing and disjointed, with no "real" plot? Well, after reading several synopses of The Birthday Party, it becomes clear that this is theater that simply needs to be experienced.
Words are not what they seem to be, characters' actions are often incomprehensible, making sense is not a human virtue, and bad stuff can rain down on you with no explanation. It is quite fantastic.
And it continues through November 12. For details, see the sidebar.