Theatre Review: ‘The Birthday Party’ by Idly Bent Theatre Company at DC Arts Center

Stanley (Paul Thomas Truitt) and Meg (Rebecca Speas). Photo by Rachel Couch of A Muse Photography.

Stanley (Paul Thomas Truitt) and Meg (Rebecca Speas). Photo by Rachel Couch of A Muse Photography.

When Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party made its London debut in 1958, it closed after only 8 performances. In one sense it is easy to understand why. Although the play’s story follows a more or less traditional trajectory—inciting incident, complication, crisis, rising action, climax—its exposition is anything but traditional. “Why are these men here and what are they doing to poor Stanley?” the critics raged.

 …this ‘Birthday Party’ successfully introduces Washington audiences to an ambitious group of talented artists committed to though-provoking community-building theatre.

In another sense, however, it is easy to understand why The Birthday Party has become a modern classic.  As we slunk into the violence of the 1960s, into Truman Capote’s chilling non-fiction novel In Cold Blood and the clock tower massacre in Austin, Texas, as we reel in horror at global expressions of mindless, senseless torture and State-organized Death Squads and drone attacks, do we even care anymore why the menace occurs? Or are we rather numbed by its habitual occurrence? Might Pinter’s The Birthday Party be but a harbinger of the normalcy of menace?

Stanley (Paul Thomas Truitt). Photo by Rachel Couch of A Muse Photography.

Stanley (Paul Thomas Truitt). Photo by Rachel Couch of A Muse Photography.

Idly Bent’s production of The Birthday Party will not leave you numb. It will not send you home to bed guaranteed a sleepless night guarding your bedroom door. What it does offer—and offer sincerely—is an evening of challenging theatre enthusiastically presented by an ensemble of young, talented artists.

Though mysterious, Pinter’s story is simple. Stanley (Paul Thomas Truitt), a thirty-something man lives in a boarding house with Meg (Rebecca Speas) and Petey (John Crowley). It is Stanley’s birthday and Lulu (Angela Pirko) brings him a gift, a infantile toy drum, which he proceeds to bang on like a lunatic. Two new boarders arrive, Goldberg (Caleb Erikson) and McCann (Stefan Difazio). What ensues is the psychological ravaging of Stanley. Like in Kafka’s The Trial, where K is pursued by an ambiguous cosmological (or perhaps State) apparatus, Stanley tries to avoid, confront, overcome the inevitable triumph of these two servants of destiny.

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Performed in the DC Art Center’s intimate 46-person house, we are constantly reminded of the youth of this company. Truitt does a solid job as Stanley, the mentally unstable man who has retreated from the world, even if he does not fully capture the depth of the character’s debauchery and “has no lines on his face.” Speas does a good job portraying Meg’s mother-hen quality, but the desperateness that comes from years of repeating the same mindless tasks does not appear on this young actress.

Undoubtedly, Goldberg and McCann carry the script’s heaviest weight for, as the play’s protagonists, they have to drive the action and drive it so hard that Stanley will ultimately crack under the pressure. As the quieter “muscle,” Difazio brings a youthful cynicism to his character’s apprenticeship to menace. Erikson captures the character’s elegance well enough but misses on several crucial moments when Goldberg verbally assaults Stanley and reduces him to gabber. Finally, Pirko’s Lulu is appropriately naive, and Crowley gives a solid performance as Petey, the “man” of the house who knows better than to argue too vociferously with agents of fate.

Foreground: McCann (Stefan DiFazio) and  Stanley (Paul Thomas Truitt); background Goldberg (Caleb Erikson) play a dangerous game of Blind Man's Bluff in Idly Bent Theatre Company's production of "The Birthday Party." Photo by Rachel Couch of A Muse Photography.

McCann (Stefan DiFazio), Stanley (Paul Thomas Truitt), and Goldberg (Caleb Erikson). Photo by Rachel Couch of A Muse Photography.

Director Anne Cecelia Haney effectively ensures that the play’s story comes across. She works with sets and lights by Virginia Berg and John Crowly, respectively, and creates Meg and Petey’s small home on the Arts Center’s tiny stage. The pacing of the show was decidedly uneven, however, which hampered the ability of the production to generate sufficient tension. On the other hand, Haney chose to include two musical numbers, one before curtain and one at the end of intermission. The choice proved positive. Not only were the songs well done, but the informal unmasking of the actors from their characters allowed the audience members to more easily accept the fact that this Birthday Party was  indeed an ensemble effort performed by young theatre artists coming together to share their craft with others.

So in the end, if the show was a little too “idly” and not enough “bent,” this Birthday Party successfully introduced Washington audiences to an ambitious group of talented artists committed to though-provoking community-building theatre.

Running Time: one hour and 45 minutes, with a ten-minute intermission.

The Birthday Party plays at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington DC, through January 13. For more information click here.

About Robert Michael Oliver

An educator, playwright, theatre artist, and poet, Robert Michael Oliver has lived an eclectic life since moving to Washington 30 years ago after earning his MFA in Directing from Virginia Tech. Co-founder of DC’s Sanctuary Theatre, Michael served as its artistic director through the early 1990s. He then worked at The New School of Northern Virginia as High School Director and Director of its theatre program. Now, with both his children independent, young adults, and after earning his doctorate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland in 2005, he has recommitted himself to the arts. In 2010 he began the Sanctuary’s Performing Knowledge Project. Its one-man show, “Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance,” which Michael wrote and performed, premiered at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. A long time participant in Washington’s theatre scene, he was delighted to be the Editor, DC Metro area for the Maryland Theatre Guide for a few years.