IF GUESTS at "The Birthday Party" leave bewildered and more than a little paranoid, it is a tribute to the Studio Theater's skilled execution of Harold Pinter's comedy of menace. Pinter's "Party," which both invites and defies easy interpretation, is designed to leave audiences insecure and disoriented.
The play begins as a domestic comedy, the essence of ordinariness, as an aging English couple go about their morning ritual in a seedy Brighton boarding house. Lumpen landlady Meg natters about cornflakes to her husband Petey, who just as routinely ignores her. They have a solitary boarder, an enigmatic, unshaven character named Stanley, "a bit of a washout" who seems to be hiding from something.
As in many of Pinter's plays, the arrival of strangers in the house charges the static atmosphere. Two shady houseguests, McCann and Goldberg, have been invited by Petey, who may or may not know what they are up to. It is clear that they mean to drag Stanley from his haven -- there are hints he may have betrayed some unnamed organization.
Written in 1957, Pinter's first full-length play contains all the elements that gave birth to the phrase "Pinteresque." Punctuated with pauses, littered with vandalized words and phrases, the typical Pinter conversation is a cul de sac, in which ordinary comments are bent and inverted till the original meaning is lost. In the banalities of breakfast table chat, Pinter shows us how we use empty, programmed responses to evade communication, and how the most disturbing, unnerving words are sometimes the most commonplace.
An undercurrent of violence pervades the play: First Stanley frightens the usually oblivious Meg with bogeyman stories about men coming to take her away in a wheelbarrow; then Stanley himself is threatened by a disturbing litany of non-sequiturs chanted by the visitors.
Pinter keeps us in the dark much of the time; the play pointedly hinges on a moment of tumult caused by a blackout during Stanley's sham "birthday party." In the chaos, the weak glimmer of a flashlight gives us our only clues as it adds to the confusion, much as Pinter's language simultaneously illuminates and obscures.
"The Birthday Party" is ably directed by Joy Zinoman, who slowly builds an unnerving tension. The Studio production is sparked by a convincing, amusing performance by June Hansen as the doughy, dim-witted Meg. Morris Chalick is suitably vague as the paranoid, disheveled Stanley; and Harry Winer is coolly malicious as sinister Goldberg. Michael Layton's set complements the play with a slightly off-balance realism and forced perspective, with the stage tilted toward the audience. And Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting gives the entire proceedings a tarnished, yellowed cast.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY -- At the Studio Theater through April 13.