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Vintage avant-garde
The Birthday Party at the ART, What the Butler Saw at the Huntington
The Birthday Party
By Harold Pinter. Directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. Set by Paul Steinberg. Lighting by Jennifer Tipton. Costumes by Gabriel Berry. Music and sound by Bruce Odland. Sound engineer David Remedios. With Terence Rigby, Karen MacDonald, Thomas Derrah, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Will LeBow, and Remo Airaldi. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center through March 27.
What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Set by David P. Gordon. Costumes by Linda Cho. Lighting by Matthew Richards. Sound by Benjamin Emerson. With Tim Donoghue, Susan O’Connor, Amy Van Nostrand, Roderick Hill, Paxton Whitehead, and John Seidman. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre through April 4.

For all the display of shapely limbs in pubis-grazing fashions, Joe Orton seems to have less legs than Harold Pinter does, at least as displayed in current revivals of seminal Absurdist comedies on local stages. At the American Repertory Theatre, famed experimental director JoAnne Akalaitis floats Pinter’s first full-length play, the 1958 The Birthday Party, amid a jumble of cheap period furnishings in a cavernous surround of sea-green, wave-filliped wallpaper. The effect, furthered by skewed architectural proportion, is more surreal than absurd, and the vastness minimizes the uncomfortable closeness of the play, in which false bonhomie and menace intrude on the dingy womb occupied by the central character, a lapsed pianist named Stanley. This is damaging, to be sure, but the work’s rhythmic lap of comedy and terror is still heard. At the Huntington Theatre Company, where resident director Darko Tresnjak oversees an opulently appointed revival of Orton’s final play, the 1967 satiric farce What the Butler Saw, a polished if hardly lightning-speed production shows how yesterday’s incendiarism can become today’s fizzle. Orton’s death is still shocking; he was bludgeoned to death at 34, just as he cockily essayed the crest of fame. But even in this, arguably his most accomplished play, the crisply articulated indictment of order and authority gets lost in an antic, outdated sea of British pinch-and-tickle.

Along with The Caretaker and The Homecoming, The Birthday Party baffled British critics when it first appeared; now that we’ve become accustomed to the cryptic works of Pinter and a host of others, its dot-to-dot inexplicability hardly adds up to impenetrability. Stanley is the sole lodger in a seaside boarding house presided over by ditsy, suffocating Meg, whose husband Petey dispenses deck chairs in the unknowable world beyond the door. Inside, Meg fusses over breakfast, the furnishings, and Stanley, on whose privacy she intrudes in ways that hover between the maternal and the flirtatious. She is nothing, however, to the sinister visitors Goldberg and McCann, non-specific representatives of an organization or society Stanley has fled. They are hell-bent, as is revealed during an evening of ostensible festivity, on taking him back.

As Akalaitis explained in our "Theater" column preview of this production (March 5), "Pinter says, ‘There’s a room; sooner or later someone will come into that room and do something to you, take you away, change you.’ " In her reading, the room is more like an ugly airplane hanger in which turquoise waves swarm the walls and a black-and-white TV drones silently while Pinter’s famous pauses are filled with Bruce Odland’s eclectic soundtrack, which includes melodramatic pulsing, eerie electronic rumblings, accordion riffs, and the faint cry of seagulls. Pinter also remarked of his plays, "I’d say that what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism." He blamed the fiasco of The Birthday Party’s first production in part on its lack of the prescribed seedy-comfy naturalistic setting (which he had based on actual Eastbourne digs where, as a touring actor, he encountered an enigmatic lodger who had once played piano on a nearby pier). Being more used to having our pinions set afloat, we are less likely than the play’s initial viewers to be bewildered by Pinter’s rather obvious, if deliberately imprecise, allegory of governmental authority and Judeo-Christian tradition come to get us. In fact, the play, with the acquiescent Petey’s ringing admonition to the broken Stanley not to "let them tell you what to do!", stands as an opening salvo in what we now know to be the adamantly political Pinter’s life-long fight against authoritarianism of any sort.

An analogical poem by the playwright printed in the ART program would seem to make the silkily avuncular if chameleonic and threatening Goldberg, rather than the scared and surly Stanley, the focus of this work. "The thought that Goldberg was/Sat in the centre of the room," Pinter writes. And Akalaitis’s production bears that out, with Will LeBow’s chatty, John Waters–mustachio’d Goldberg, once he and his neurotic Irish-muscleman colleague intrude on the rooming house’s dysfunctional but insulated ménage, more the focus than Thomas Derrah’s sullen Stan. The latter lurks passively on the sidelines, more the recalcitrant cipher than a viable societal rebel. Only at the end, when Stanley struggles to regain the speech of which the strangers’ bullying has robbed him, does Derrah elicit any feeling.

In the stylized ART production, Pinter’s oddities, among them McCann’s compulsive shredding of newspapers, register less than Akalaitis’s, which include such visual elements as an absurdly high kitchen pass-through from which Karen MacDonald’s mischievous Meg dispenses cornflakes and fried bread, always hovering like some frowsy Deity to inquire, "Are they nice?" And the remoteness of the action, in this looming ’50s kitsch yard where the action does not so much pause ominously as freeze cacophonously, blunts the effect of both the impending and the actual violence. As for the trick of having the walls close in on the overstuffed room as Goldberg and McCann close in on Stanley, it’s clumsily symbolic.

Still, LeBow, abetted by MacDonald as a Brighton-ized Edith Bunker, captures the play’s festive, sinister humor if not its visceral threat. Pinter based the quicksilver and dangerously solicitous Goldberg and McCann in part on characters in Hemingway’s The Killers and the comedic thugs of old movies. LeBow and Remo Airaldi, as McCann, take some cues from the latter, with LeBow adding a reptilian polish to the dapper, deceptive Goldberg, evoking in one fine speech a bygone civilized world gone seriously acropper.

Orton, on the other hand, rubs together the traditional sticks of farce to create what is meant to be a fire at the foot of English censorship, stuffiness, sexual narrow-mindedness, and blind adherence to authority. Just as his Entertaining Mr. Sloane more aptly parallels The Birthday Party, What the Butler Saw calls to mind Pinter’s early play The Hothouse, which also presents an asylum in which those in charge are the truest lunatics. Butler is set in a private psychiatric clinic presided over by Dr. Prentice, whose thwarted attempt to bed a secretarial candidate sets off a chain of logically calibrated yet anarchic events in which staid morality, gender boundaries, and trust in the status quo are all set on their heads. Today, the syringe-brandishing, cross-dressing shenanigans are almost quaint. And Tresnjak’s production — which seems built on critic and expert-on-all-things-Orton John Lahr’s assertion that "like all great satirists, Joe Orton was a realist" — gives them grounding but not speed. The result is admirably epigrammatic but ultimately flaccid silliness in which boys will be girls, girls will be boys, authority will be arbitrary, and the ’60s will be its colorful Carnaby Street self, clinging to repression while gyrating toward liberation.

"In farce," Lahr also writes in his introduction to Orton: The Complete Plays, "people are victims of their momentum." It is precisely this on which Tresnjak’s well-acted production stints. Among its merits are Linda Cho’s period-evoking costumes, from shaggy-haired Dr. Prentice’s plaid slacks and mustard turtleneck to the leopard-skin wrap-around frock that finds its way onto everyone from a libidinous bellboy to the police sergeant on a hunt for the bronze genitalia missing from an exploded statue of Sir Winston Churchill (a prop whose brandishing the censors nixed in the play’s 1969 premiere). David P. Gordon’s set seems too splendid for even a private clinic in the land of the National Health, but its gorgeous environs are cleverly supplied with doors to slam and crannies into which to dodge when naked. And the performances are accomplished, with the actors careful to produce Orton’s glib, Firbankian aphorisms exactly. (However limp this once provocative send-up of sex and psychiatry seems today, it is extremely well constructed and worded.)

Tim Donoghue is an aptly nerdy Gene Wilder–esque Dr. Prentice and Susan O’Connor a primly adorable would-be secretary (though the condescension to the profession is disturbing). Amy Van Nostrand, sleek in French twist and black stockings, masters both the brittleness and the horrified takes of the bibulous, nymphomaniacal Mrs. Prentice; Roderick Hill brings a near-angelic androgyny to the bellboy stud trying to blackmail her; and John Seidman, as the policeman drawn into the fray, does his comedic duty, whether displaying Union Jack underpants or crawling down a rope ladder in a dress. Best of all is the languorously authoritative Paxton Whitehead, one-time artistic director of Canada’s Shaw Festival, as Dr. Rance, the godlike shrink sent by the government to inspect Prentice’s practice. The imposing, white-coated Whitehead combines a sweeping medical manner and Freudian presumption with an obviously addled authority, proving, as Orton intends, that madness is most dangerous in high places.

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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