What was unsettling in 1958 is just as unnerving now in the Matrix Theater's production of Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party." Pinter subjected the comedy of keeping up appearances to an intimate scrutiny not seen since Anton Chekhov.

What was unsettling in 1958 is just as unnerving now in the Matrix Theater’s production of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party.” Pinter subjected the comedy of keeping up appearances to an intimate scrutiny not seen since Anton Chekhov. But where Chekhov was tenderhearted toward vanity, foolishness and hopeless entanglements, Pinter was eerily ruthless, a hard listener.

Director Andrew J. Robinson concedes that an American cast is going to bring unavoidable American energies to the inner drizzle that characterizes most of these lives, so we’re spared a lot of the famous Pinter pauses that were fresh once but became dreary mannerisms sometime thereafter.

A retirement-age couple, Petey and Meg, run a seedy British boarding house by the sea. Their single boarder is a surly paranoiac named Stanley. Two mysterious strangers, Goldberg and McCann, show up one morning to interrogate him and then take him away the following day.

Robin Gammell’s frail Petey is as dry as tinder, while Lisa Akey brings a big sensual closeness as Lulu, the townie who gets snookered (nice Pinter touch here on sex as barter). Raphael Sbarge’s Stanley is a disappointment. To play pathology, as he does, may evoke sympathy, but what we need here is identification with the character. And he doesn’t make the good choices. When someone brings you a box as big as a birthday cake, wouldn’t you peer at the box instead of the person?

As Meg, Angela Paton looks like a shell-shocked Dame Edna padding through the lower depths in a dumpy frock and old bedroom slippers; her eyes are full of panic, confusion and eagerness to please, and she doesn’t overplay the ache to touch and be touched — “I had lovely afternoons in that room once” is more poignant for being a throwaway line.

Morlan Higgins’ McCann is a burly Irishman with a dark narrow gaze that’s more frightening coming from someone who, in George Carlin’s phrase, has dropped some cheese from his cracker. Armin Shimerman (Goldberg) looks like a villainous dandy straight out of the Weimar Republic. His nifty little Noel Coward frame is topped by a big balding head with jug ears, glowing skin, sunken, knowing eyes and a piranha’s zesty underbite. His Goldberg is some kind of evil triumph in miniature.

You wouldn’t want to see these guys come to your door.

The Birthday Party

The Matrix Theater; 99 seats; $20

Production

A Matrix Theater presentation of the Harold Pinter play. Directed by Andrew J. Robinson.

Creative

Set design, Victoria Profitt; lights, J. Kent Inasy; costumes, Maggie Morgan; stage manager, Anna Belle Gilbert. Opened Sept. 22, 2001, reviewed Nov. 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

With: Lisa Akey, Gloria Dorson, Ralph Drischell, Morlan Higgins, Gregory Itzin, Jay Karnes, Angela Paton, Lawrence Pressman, Rachel Robinson, Raphael Sbarge, Armin Shimerman, Robert Symonds.
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