Harold Pinter's power as a playwright lies not so much in what his characters say, which is often banal or ridiculous, but in the silences, the pauses, the terrifyingly empty space around the speech. Although it's a pleasure to see that "The Birthday Party" still works Emily Mann's direction seems to lack the courage of Pinter's convictions.

Harold Pinter’s power as a playwright lies not so much in what his characters say, which is often banal or ridiculous, but in the silences, the pauses, the terrifyingly empty space around the speech. Although it’s a pleasure to see that “The Birthday Party” still works — new metaphors crowd in to replace the old — Emily Mann’s direction seems to lack the courage of Pinter’s convictions. The actors perform right through the needed silences, but because they all speak so slowly — no linguistic dueling and what-did-he-say? here — the show takes longer than it needs to. Like the cluttered boarding house setting, the production is in need of tidying up.

Stanley (Henry Stram) is, apparently, an ex-pianist; he is the house’s permanent and only boarder, locked in an Oedipal relationship with Meg (Barbara Bryne). He is horrified to learn two men are coming to stay in the house.

Enter the strangers — the plot trigger of every Pinter play. Stanley’s safe haven is invaded by Goldberg (Allan Corduner) and McCann (Randall Newsome), the mysterious hit team — the order-giver and his muscle.

Meg has decided it is Stanley’s birthday. Goldberg decides they should give him a party. And once they begin drunkenly playing Blind Man’s Bluff — a scene that in this production turns stupid rather than frightening — the course of events is inevitable.

Pinter’s scripts invite interpretation by the audience — not only afterward but while we watch. Are Goldberg and McCann agents of a fascist power? Emissaries from some organization from which Stanley has defected? Do they represent artistic or economic or religious or sexual forces? Or are they externalized manifestations of Stanley’s self-accusations and guilt? (The inquisition scene, the most frightening in the play, falls flat here.) We don’t — and won’t — ever know the definitive answer. But, unlike so many playwrights, Pinter keeps us busy, alert, focused.

As Goldberg, Corduner is both charming and repulsive, but not enough of either. This famous “comedy of menace” pivots on this enigmatic character (it is the role Pinter himself played), and Corduner is never sufficiently threatening.

Newsome, as his henchman, seems far too good-natured (despite the jaw-clenching) to be the tightly wound, toadying hit man; his confessional command to Lulu, “Kneel down, woman, and tell me the latest!” should be one of the funniest and scariest lines in the play.

As nasty but milquetoasty Stanley, Stram is unreadable; it’s as though he has randomly stitched together various interpretations of the character. Bryne’s highly mannered portrayal of Meg as an open-mouthed, dim-witted enabler is just a caricature, not a person.

James A. Stephens plays her husband, Petey, the kindly, cowardly bystander who understands much of what goes on around him but prefers not to get involved.

The opening-night audience laughed quite a lot, but at the characters’ oddness or stupidities. This is the laughter of superiority, not the laughter Pinter intended, of wit and trepidation.

The Birthday Party

Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater Center, Princeton, N.J.; 300 seats; $48 top


A McCarter Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Harold Pinter. Directed by Emily Mann.


Sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, Cheryl Mintz. Opened, reviewed Sept. 15, 2006. Runs through Oct. 15. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.


Meg - Barbara Bryne Petey - James A. Stephens Stanley - Henry Stram Lulu - Charlotte Parry Goldberg - Allan Corduner McCann - Randall Newsome
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