There comes a moment — or so one hopes — in every character actor’s life when a reliable performer suddenly projects himself as a star. For decades, Timothy West has been appearing both opposite and apart from wife Prunella Scales, his current West End female lead, and/or their son Sam West (on view briefly in the film “Notting Hill”). Nor has he backed away from some of the greatest challenges in the repertoire, playing Willy Loman and Falstaff and Eugene O’Neill’s James Tyrone, among others, up and down the country. But amid an otherwise pedestrian revival of “The Birthday Party,” the 1958 play that first staked out Harold Pinter’s defining hold on modern drama, West stakes out his own star-making and terrifying turf, fashioning anew that most chilling of terrorists whose primary weaponry isn’t physical but emotional.
His character, Goldberg, is a relatively late arrival to an intermissionless production of a three-act play that badly needs the frisson West lends it in order to kick the evening into fearsome life.
Under Sam Mendes’ direction at the National Theater in 1994, the same play alerted audiences to the shadowy human corners of intimidation and self-delusion that this play so famously occupies. But having done a fine job last year at the Donmar Warehouse with two Pinter one-acts, “The Collection” and “The Lover,” Harmston rarely grasps the awful powerof a play that is never more chilling than in its moments of cheer, most of which are projected by Meg (Scales), the landlady whose happiness emerges only through a haze.
Meg is arguably the principal victim of the play, although she can equally well be said to get off lightly amid an environment in which her beloved lodger, the bespectacled Stanley (Steven Pacey), is reduced to a mute, slobbering wreck. Meg’s tragedy, though, is not to acknowledge man’s capacity for malice, as embodied by Goldberg and McCann (a not always intelligible Nigel Terry), the two mysterious visitors to the seaside boarding house that Meg runs with husband Petey (Barry Jackson). Although these suited visitors ultimately take Stanley away to someone called Monty, Meg herself inhabits the world of blindman’s bluff that the characters elsewhere play: She’s well-meaning to a fault and dim when it matters most.
It’s a great role — Dora Bryan was a revelation in the Mendes production — and the usually excellent Scales, parading about the set dressed in pink, doesn’t fully grasp the measure of an aphasia whose implications become exponentially more alarming if one sees this ostensibly domestic drama as a harbinger of Pinter’s wounding political firebombs (“Ashes to Ashes,” most recently, included) still to come.
And while the Everyvictim of sorts who is Stanley tellingly inhabits his own weird void — it’s no accident that he invites young Lulu (Lisa Dulson) to go away with him even though, as he makes clear, there is “nowhere” to go — Pacey substitutes sheer goofiness for something more pathetic. Later, Stanley’s famous drumming scene, with its nod to Buchner, doesn’t freeze the blood.
At times, it’s as if the tension inherent in the play has floated into the airier reaches of Tom Rand’s set, lit by Robert Bryan with purposeful disregard for the ominous darkness where the play comes psychologically to rest.
Its blackest aspects are signaled by West’s electrifying Goldberg, whether he is railing against the indignity of waking up or boasting at never having lost a tooth. In one definably Pinteresque encounter, he drops his head back so that McCann can blow into his mouth. And yet, even there the actor transmits the latent fury of a lion preparing to roar in an otherwise becalmed staging that allows West to be the undeniable life of the “Party.”