Director Jody McAuliffe and actor Derrick Ivey have taken us down Rats Alley before. In 2004, it was the premiere of Lydia Stryk's Safe House, a decidedly unglamorous spy story in which the instability of the double-agent protagonist's language, which was riddled with buzzwords, lies and bizarre, disjointed metaphors, ultimately pointed to his increasing mental instability.
In this rewarding but brief production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party (which closes this weekend), the pair returns to a world where words are the primary tools to paper over something insidious, official and grotesque. That is, when they're not employed to disable a fellow agent who's strayed too far from the fold.
Pinter's play shocked its initial London audiences (including critics, whose disapproval shuttered the show in its first week). After all, the spies of British pop culture at the time were the suave, fictional James Bond and the aristocratic, real-life Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. None of them had much in common with Birthday Party's unkempt antihero, Stanley, a bespectacled recluse holed up in a nondescript beach town boarding house.
Small wonder then that landlords—and innocents—Petey (Dan Sipp) and Meg (Lenore Field) come off as comparatively slow-witted rubes at the beginning. In a rewardingly comic opening scene, Petey seems very comfortable in that perpetual low gear, taking on cornflakes and the morning paper, while Meg dithers about like an English Edith Bunker.
After Stanley's late appearance at breakfast, the dark spots start to show. Meg is so lonely that she flirts with the antisocial Stanley, and when his rejections become completely abusive, she crumples, before recovering and placating him with apologies. In the scope of Act I, it's a small moment, but under McAuliffe's nuanced direction it's a heartbreaking one nonetheless.
Shortly, Goldberg (Ivey) and McCann (Jay O'Berski), strange agents pretending to be new boarders, come to investigate Stanley. Ivey is effective playing Goldberg as a stiff, smarmy senior officer; when he turns on the charm, the bromides and sentimental clichés flow like molasses, deliberately gumming up conversations with the locals. McCann, we learn, is a recently defrocked priest who is haunted by his past and his memories of Ireland, and also troubled by what Goldberg's assignment may ask of him. After a bit of cat-and-mousery, Goldberg and McCann gang up on Stanley, but McAuliffe makes their interrogation nearly a burlesque of the third degree, a fusillade of accusations and questions that ultimately give their quarry no opportunity to respond.
In reality, neither this conversation nor McCann's first exchange with Stanley in the second act is intended to extract or exchange information. Both function only to coerce, attack and dismantle the interviewee. In both places we witness nihilism by speech, graphic examples of what Daniel Berrigan once called "the myth of civilized discourse." Pinter realized that in such instances the words don't matter; they've stopped transmitting meaning. All that counts is their emotional velocity. And, of course, their impact.
The genius of this director and this trio of actors actually makes such an abomination funny. But the aftermath, in the disastrous titled party and denouement on the next day, leave us appropriately unsettled. In the final scene, Goldberg seems to be frantically fumbling through his endless string of clichés, searching for the one or two he actually still believes.
As in Safe House, corrupted language ultimately produces corrupted psyches. By their last lines, all three agents seem on the verge of shattering—an early warning from a playwright's conscience that for a number of cold warriors, by 1958 the geopolitical party was already over.