How Power Works in Pinter's The Birthday Party

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

By Michael Paller

In Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Goldberg and McCann arrive at an English seaside boardinghouse in search of a third man—Stanley. Who they are, whom they represent, and why they’ve come for Stanley are mysteries. Into this expositional vacuum rush uncertainty and unease. In Act Two, they subject him to a fierce interrogation, including a series of bewildering questions: “What about the Albigensenist heresy?” “Who watered the wicket in Melbourne? “What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett?” What’s the meaning of this? Is it code? The answer lies in how Pinter’s characters get and deploy power.

McCann (Marco Barricelli) and Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) confront Stanley (Firdous Bamji)
 in A.C.T.'s production of The Birthday Party. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Power isn’t always about physical violence: the knock at the door, the punch to the solar plexus. In Pinter’s plays, power is more often psychological, and words are the weapons. As theater critic Michael Billington wrote in his biography Harold Pinter, “Any conversation between two people conceals a tactical battle for advantage.”

In daily life we use words to refer to the things and concepts that they represent. But Pinter often uses words not to relay or discover information but to define a relationship in terms of power. A character makes a statement or asks a question and, regardless of the sentence’s literal meaning, the listener understands that he’s being asked to accept lower status in a struggle for power. When Goldberg asks Stanley, “Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?” (a reference to a notorious 1955 cricket match), he’s not asking for information. He means to dominate, confuse, and terrorize Stanley into submission.

“Power” in and of itself isn’t a theme. “Power must be resisted” is. A character asked to surrender power may choose to resist instead. Stanley resists with words of his own, and when they fail him, one can argue that he still tries to exert his will through sounds. He resists Goldberg and McCann all the way from the interrogation until the moment when Petey, Meg’s easygoing husband, urges, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!”—a line that Pinter said was possibly the most important he ever wrote.

The one thing a Pinter character must never do when confronting power is admit fear or confess vulnerability. The battle must be played out to the end. No one in a Pinter play succumbs to power until the curtain comes down, and even then, there may be no clear-cut victor. Goldberg and McCann wield power inside the boardinghouse, but may well have none outside it. Neither man exits the play unscathed, and their fate is as unknown as Stanley’s. They too may discover the need to resist.

A.C.T.'s production of The Birthday Party ends this Sunday, February 4 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the power dynamics in Pinter plays? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Five Things to Know about The Birthday Party Playwright Harold Pinter

Friday, January 26, 2018

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Why is Pinter significant in Western theater?

Pinter’s dramatic storytelling was like a shockwave in Western theater. In the 1950s, British and American theaters were filled with dramas that were conversational, genteel, amusing. Pinter’s forceful rhythms, menace, sexuality, sudden humor, and unanswered questions shook audiences awake.

Stanley (Firdous Bamji) watches Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) flirt with Lulu (Julie Adamo)
in A.C.T.'s production of The Birthday Party. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Why is power so important in Pinter’s work?

Pinter saw drama as a zero-sum game. In every scene, there is a winner and a loser, and the characters onstage know it. This sense of competition—between husband and wife, master and servant, or two hitmen hired to do a job—runs like a spinal cord throughout the playwright’s work. In his own life, the playwright was only too aware of the misuses of power; as a young Jewish man growing up in 1930s London, he’d witnessed fascists marching through the streets.

Who were Pinter’s influences?

As a young actor, Pinter appeared in adaptations of Agatha Christie, and the structure of those mysteries is visible in his own plays (including The Birthday Party). Other influences include dramatists (Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare), novelists (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf), and filmmakers (Luis Buñuel). Pinter would both draw from and influence other storytellers. The Birthday Party’s Goldberg and McCann have been compared with the gangsters in Hemingway’s short story The Killers (1927) and the hitmen in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction (1994).

What is Pinteresque?

Pinteresque refers to aspects of Pinter’s voice: the sense of mystery and things unspoken, the atmosphere of threat and menace, the unexpected shifts between terror and comedy, the specific timing of sentences and silences.

What do I need to know before seeing The Birthday Party?

Pinter intended his plays to be entertaining. He wanted to create shock, surprise, and laughter. His plays don’t require advance knowledge. While each character in The Birthday Party is fully realized—with his or her own hopes and fears—Pinter focused only on what happens onstage in the present; he was never interested in explaining what shaped his characters. That’s partly what makes his plays so lean, immediate, and enduring.

The Birthday Party
runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Pinter from an actor’s perspective? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Introducing A.C.T.’s Next Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

By A.C.T. Publications Staff 

A.C.T.’s Next Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon.
Photo by Chad Batka.
We are thrilled to announce A.C.T.’s next artistic director, Pam MacKinnon. Tony Award and Drama Desk Award winner MacKinnon is no stranger to the Bay Area, having directed Victor Lodato’s 3F, 4F at Magic Theatre in 2005 and Amélie, A New Musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2015.

MacKinnon grew up in Toronto, Canada as well as just outside Buffalo, New York. She majored in economics and political science at the University of Toronto and UC San Diego, and briefly pursued a Ph.D. in political science, before turning to her other passion: theater.

Since then, MacKinnon has become one of American theater’s most beloved directors, a supporter of new American playwrights, and a leading interpreter of playwright Edward Albee’s work. She is an alumna of the Drama League, Women’s Project Theater, and Lincoln Center Theater’s Directors Labs. She is also Executive Board President of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SDC).

MacKinnon has directed multiple plays on Broadway, including Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, and Madison Dirks. MacKinnon won a Tony Award for her direction, and the play received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Other Broadway productions include Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (Obie Award for Excellence in Directing); Amélie, A New Musical; the world premiere of David Mamet’s China Doll with Al Pacino; Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles with Elizabeth Moss; and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance with Glenn Close and John Lithgow.

MacKinnon has also directed extensively off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Roundabout Theatre Company, as well as around the country at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, San Diego’s Old Globe, and Washington, DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

“Pam is not only a great theater director,” says Pulitzer Prize–winning actor-playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), “she has burning curiosity and boundless passion. She’s also a lot of fun. All of the above I consider qualities necessary to run a theater. I can’t wait to see what she does with A.C.T.” 

“I am so thrilled for Pam,” says Tony Award nominee Phillipa Soo (Amélie, A New Musical; Hamilton). “The A.C.T. community has gained an incredible leader with outstanding qualifications—great intelligence, skill, and influence, with a heart to match.”

“New York’s loss,” says Academy Award nominee Uma Thurman, who is currently performing in MacKinnon’s production of The Parisian Woman on Broadway. “Pure gold, Pam MacKinnon, to whom I am forever grateful. Congratulations, San Francisco!”

“I am thrilled and honored to be named artistic director of American Conservatory Theater,” says MacKinnon. “I am eager to build on the company’s rich legacy of artistic excellence and expand the vision and achievements of Carey Perloff, Edward Hastings, and founder William Ball to ensure that A.C.T. remains at the forefront of American theater. I look forward to furthering A.C.T. as a creative home for world-class artists and a place of rigorous artistic exploration and commitment in the Bay Area.”

Join us on Facebook this Friday, January 26 at 2 p.m. PST for a live interview with our next Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon and Associate Artistic Director Andy Donald! Send us your questions via Twitter and Facebook by noon on Friday using #ACTAskPam, or ask your questions in the chat during the Facebook Live session!

Read more: 

“Pam MacKinnon tapped as A.C.T. Head at a Time of Major Change in Bay Area Theaters”San Francisco Chronicle

“Pam MacKinnon, Tony-Winning Director, to Lead San Francisco Theater”The New York Times

“American Conservatory Theater Taps Tony-Winning Director for Top Job”Bay Area News Group

“Pam MacKinnon Takes the Helm of California's A.C.T.”American Theatre Magazine

“A.C.T. Names Pam MacKinnon as its New Artistic Director”LA Times 

“Pam MacKinnon Named New Artistic Director of A.C.T.”KQED

Like Sheet Music: Actor Marco Barricelli Talks Pinter

Friday, January 19, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Staccato. Threat-filled. Intelligent. Universal. These are just a few of the words that A.C.T. actors Graham Beckel, Anthony Fusco, and Melissa Smith have used to describe Harold Pinter’s work. With the opening of The Birthday Party, we reached out to a fellow veteran of the Geary stage, Marco Barricelli, who plays McCann and previously acted in A.C.T.'s productions of Celebration and The Room (2001), to get an inside perspective on his impressions of and approaches to the playwright’s unique aesthetic. 

McCann (Marco Barricelli) tears a newspaper into strips as Stanley
(Firdous Bamji) looks on in A.C.T.'s production of
The Birthday Party. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What first comes to mind when you think of Pinter’s plays?

His writing is very self-assured. The remarkable thing to me is that he seemed to hatch that way. With other playwrights, you look back at the beginning of their careers and you can see that there’s talent there, but they need to develop it, mature it, hone it. There’s a gradual rise to writing incredible work. With Pinter, he was born fully formed. If you took The Room [1957] and Celebration [1999] and told someone who didn’t know Pinter that he wrote one at the beginning of his career and one at the end, she wouldn’t know the difference from the writing.

How do you approach a Pinter script in rehearsal?

The script of a Pinter play is like sheet music. There are dashes, ellipses, pauses, and silences. If you follow these notations in the script, then you can play it. In my experience with Pinter, I’ve found that the way to rehearse it is to honor those notations, even if you’re not sure yet what they mean. And by the simple fact of repeating those rhythms and silences, you will see what the moment is about.

You have to play the moment purely for what it is—What do I need? What is getting in the way of my need? What is my strategy to get around it?—and not spell it out for the audience. It’s essential that the actors and the director resist the impulse to explain it. I want them to lean into the material and figure out for themselves what is going on.

What do you enjoy most about Pinter's writing?

Part of the joy of Pinter’s work is that you don’t get to have it spelled out. And isn’t it cool to be presented with all the questions and not have any of the answers, to let the answers come to you where they will?

Pinter is known for not providing much exposition—why do you think that is?

He’s not interested in explaining himself in his plays. And the man was that way too. I once had dinner with him, his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, and Tom Stoppard in London. He leaned into me at one point in the dinner and said, “I’ve written a poem. Would you like to hear it?” Of course I said yes. He stared at me for a few seconds—seemed like an eternity—and then said, “And it goes on. And it goes on, and on it goes . . . And it goes on, and on, and on; and on it goes . . . And it goes on, and on . . .” This was extended for some time and I was unsure what to think. Is this a joke? Is this serious? Finally, Lady Antonia piped in and said, “Oh Harold, I thought you were talking about our marriage.” And everybody laughed. That moment of not being quite sure of what the hell is going on, but at the same time being totally fascinated, is something that is essential in Pinter’s work.

The Birthday Party runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Pinter from an actor’s perspective? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Pinterland: The Life and Work of Harold Pinter

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Bursting onto the theatrical scene in the 1950s, Pinter radically changed storytelling on the Western stage. In his 29 plays and 23 screenplays, he explored universal themes of loyalty, friendship, memory, communication, and the thin line between the personal and the political, transforming the language of east London into a unique poetry. He “took the narration out of theater,” says American playwright David Mamet, “and put the poetry back.”

Study for a portrait of Harold Pinter. Graphite drawing, 2008, by Reginald Gray. 
Photo by Reginald Gray. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Pinter was born on October 10, 1930, in Hackney, a working-class suburb in east London. Despite having a large extended family, he was an only child who could often be found daydreaming alone under the backyard lilac tree. This Eden came crashing down in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. At the age of nine, Pinter found himself on a train to rural Cornwall with other children fleeing the Blitz. 

In 1951, Pinter dropped out of school to join actor-manager Anew McMaster’s repertory company. Under the stage name David Baron, Pinter acted in theaters from Bournemouth to Birmingham, playing killers, detectives, and romantic heroes. Between performances, Pinter was writing and submitting work to BBC radio and television, without success. Ironically, Pinter’s “big break” came about not via this institution, but thanks to his childhood Hackney friend Henry Woolf. In 1957, Woolf asked Pinter to write a play for Bristol University’s drama department. After initially responding that he couldn’t possibly write something in less than six months, Pinter sat down and created The Room in just four afternoons. It was a success with audiences and critics alike.

Based on the positive reception of The Room, Pinter moved ahead with plans to bring another of his plays, The Birthday Party, to the West End. The Birthday Party opened at London’s Lyric Theatre on Monday, May 19, 1958. The critical response took Pinter by surprise. Every British theater critic—save one—dismissed the play. London critics didn’t know what to make of Pinter’s tale with the pace of a whodunit but none of the clarity regarding who did what to whom and why. Where was the exposition? Where were the characters’ backstories? What was the play about? Only Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times got it, declaring Pinter to have “the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.” But Hobson’s review didn’t run until Sunday, and the producers had closed the production down the previous night.

Steven Anthony Jones, Marco Barricelli, and Diane Venora in A.C.T.'s production of The Room (2001).
Photo by Kevin Berne.
By the time Pinter’s next major play, The Caretaker, premiered in the West End in April 1960, theater critics had done a U-turn. They hailed the work as a resounding success and Pinter as British theater’s leading new voice. Pinter had risen far, fast by 1965. His work could be heard on the radio and seen on television and at the cinema, as well as in the West End and on Broadway. In 1966, Pinter was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and the next year, The Homecoming won the Tony Award for Best Play. 

Although Pinter’s last major play premiered in 1999, he continued acting, directing, and writing—penning several sketches, directing No Man’s Land (2001) and Simon Gray’s The Old Masters (2004), and acting in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (2006) in London and New York. Always a political person, he frequently wrote letters to leading newspapers to criticize Prime Minister Tony Blair and his decision to send troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. Behind all this activity, however, Pinter’s health was deteriorating. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, he was too ill to attend the ceremony, but he left the hospital to record his lecture. In it, he talked about his work and, ever the nonconformist, he used the opportunity to rail against American foreign policy. Pinter continued to be vocal about current events until his death on Christmas Eve, 2008.

The Birthday Party
runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Harold Pinter and his work? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Like Staging a Boxing Match: An Interview with Birthday Party Director Carey Perloff

Thursday, January 11, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

In 1987, Carey Perloff wrote to Harold Pinter to gain the rights to The Birthday Party for Classic Stage Company. The odds were against the 28-year-old director. Pinter was unhappy about American productions of his plays that were overly psychological. “Americans tend to do dramaturgy that’s confessional,” says Perloff. “If you tell the truth, you absolve yourself. But the British don’t tend to tell people what they think. For them, language is a smokescreen.” Perloff’s persistence earned her not only the rights to the play, but the beginning of a collaboration with Pinter that would span 20 years. As Perloff returns to The Birthday Party for the first time since the ’80s, she spoke about the play and her long partnership with Pinter and his work.

Director Carey Perloff and playwright Harold Pinter during rehearsals 
at Classic Stage Company in 1989. Photo by Tom Chargin. 
Why do you keep coming back to Pinter?

There’s nothing better. [Laughs] He’s such a touchstone for me. I love the mystery of it, the muscle. Every line is active. You’re either predator or prey. When you direct this play, it’s your job to know in every moment: who’s on top? It’s like staging a boxing match.

What did you learn from working with Pinter?

Having him in the room was incalculable. Pinter never explained something in terms of what it meant. I asked him why Meg always asks Petey to read her the newspaper; what does it tell us about their marriage? He said, “I believe she’s forgotten how to read.” That is something an actor can play. He always said “I believe” because as a writer, he trusted his characters to teach him what the play was about.

You first directed The Birthday Party in 1988. What’s different about this play for an audience in 2018?

We’ve gone through a lot more terror. We’ve been through 9/11. Remember that Pinter grew up during World War II. The fact that he was a Jewish kid living in London during the Blitz at a time of enormous anti-Semitism is highly relevant to Pinter’s sense of the world. The Birthday Party is about the individual against the state—the visceral experience of being hunted—but it’s also about coercive religious and political institutions.

David Strathairn (Stanley) and Jean Stapleton (Meg) in Classic Stage Company’s production 
of The Birthday Party (1988), directed by Carey Perloff. Photo courtesy of Classic Stage Company. 
Why is Pinter one of the great playwrights?

He brought a liveness and muscle to drama that had been very conversational. If you look at who had come before him—Noël Coward, J. B. Priestley, Terence Rattigan—they’re quite different. Pinter’s plays are like athletic events. All about competition. The drama is sexual and active. It’s about moment-to-moment experiences of people caught in a room, trying to either protect or defend themselves.

As you prepare for opening night at The Geary, what has been the most enjoyable part of the process?

Being in the rehearsal room. It’s absolutely alive. You can’t analyze it, you have to do it. You have to be incredibly bold. It’s funny and rigorous and uncompromising and delicious. It’s pure theater. Everything was theatrical for Pinter. He was a real actor. Every show I direct, I think about him—what would Harold have done?

The Birthday Party runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about director Carey Perloff's artistic relationship with Harold Pinter? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Purely Pinteresque: The Elements of Pinter's Language

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Most artists take years to establish their voice and style. This wasn’t the case for playwright Harold Pinter. His first West End play, The Birthday Party, showcases the elements of Pinter’s aesthetic that would later be evident throughout his 29 plays and 23 screenplays: the rhythm of colloquial language punctuated by pauses and silences, mysterious characters who rarely say what they mean, and the unsettling, yet witty juxtaposition of comedy and terror. Suspenseful and comical, familiar and foreign, disturbing and alluring, The Birthday Party is quintessential Pinter.

Graphite drawing of Harold Pinter. By A.C.T. Senior Graphic Designer Brad Amorosino.
Pinter is a playwright who uses the back-and-forth of everyday conversation to create conflict and shape power dynamics between characters. “My characters tend to use words not to express what they think or feel,” said Pinter in a 1995 speech, “but to disguise what they think or feel, to mask their actual intentions, so that words are acting as a masquerade, a veil, a web, or used as weapons to undermine or to terrorize.” In a Pinter play, information is not explicitly offered to the audience. We can infer what a character might be thinking based not on what is said, but on what is unsaid. The parley between Stanley and McCann—chit-chat and whistled fragments of an Irish tune—masks tension that quietly builds, becoming increasingly direct and more dangerous until one man physically seizes the other.

A defining hallmark of Pinter’s style is his use of silences and pauses. Every word and every pause count. “The script of a Pinter play is like sheet music,” says Marco Barricelli, who plays the role of McCann in A.C.T.’s 2018 production of The Birthday Party. “There are dashes, ellipses, pauses, and silences. If you can follow these notations in the script, then you can play it.” The Birthday Party, like many of Pinter’s other works, walks the line between terror and humor, playing with its audience’s emotions. There are moments in the play—a beloved childhood party game, a bowl of cornflakes, a familiar joke—when it’s uncertain whether we should be laughing or screaming, and this uncertainty adds to the suspense. “Pinter wanted his plays to be a good night out,” says director Carey Perloff. “He really cared that it was entertaining, that it was scary, that it was sexy, that it was violent, that it woke you up.”

Anthony Fusco and Jack Willis in A.C.T.'s 2011 production of The Homecoming. Photo by Kevin Berne.
“People sometimes come to Pinter thinking, ‘This is going to be really mysterious’ or ‘This is going to be some weird puzzle I have to figure out,’” says actor Anthony Fusco, a veteran of multiple Pinter plays at A.C.T., including The Room (2001) and The Homecoming (2011). “Pinter didn’t write plays to be about anything other than the experience of them. Just trust your experience.”

The Birthday Party begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater January 10 and runs through February 4. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the intracacies of Pinter's language? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

A Smile and a Mission: A Q&A with Dear Dad's Louie Anderson

Friday, January 5, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

In the early ’80s, stand-up comedian Louie Anderson took a friend to the graveyard in Duluth, Minnesota. The man wanted to read a letter to his late father, a man with whom he’d experienced a challenging relationship all his life. “When my friend came back to the car,” Anderson says, “he looked different—lighter. I thought: I’m gonna have to do that someday.” The Minnesota-born comedian was already a star, known both for his stand-up and his scene-stealing appearances in ’80s classics such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Coming to America. Anderson went back to comedy, but he didn’t forget the experience in Duluth and, later in the decade, he started writing his own letter. We caught up with the Emmy Award–winning personality before he brings his one-man show, Dear Dad, to The Strand next week.

Comedian Louie Anderson. Photo courtesy of Louie Anderson.
How did Dear Dad start out?

Originally this started out as a celebrity autobiography. But in the middle of it, I began journaling about my dad. I just started writing a letter, “Dear Dad.” A writer I knew at People magazine was doing an article about the adult children of alcoholics. When he asked me if I had anything, I sent him the journal. He printed a couple of the letters and that’s when I realized that this is the book I wanted to write.

Dear Dad at The Strand is a totally different medium. What’s that journey been like?

It’s hard because I’m a natural performer, so I’m looking for a response from the audience. But in this show, I’m not looking for an audible response. That is a different thing. My biggest challenge is where to put comedy and where to put serious stuff and where to put a mix of the two. To be more of an actor and less of a comic.

Right now, Dear Dad is a work in progress. What are your hopes for it?

Dear Dad is an important milestone in my career and a personal milestone. I’d like to shine the brightest light I can on its journey. Nothing would make me happier than to spend a year doing Dear Dad, whether in San Francisco or on Broadway. Hopefully people will walk out of the show with a smile and also a mission to examine their relationship with their own father.

Louie Anderson: Dear Dad
runs January 10–14 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Perloff on Pinter: A.C.T.’s Artistic Director Prepares for The Birthday Party

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

For A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, directing a Pinter play is a labor of love. Having directed The Birthday Party twice before at Classic Stage Company (CSC) in 1988 and 1989 as well as several of his works here at A.C.T. (Old Times [1998], Celebration [2001], The Room [2001], The Homecoming [2011]), Perloff knows the playwright’s writing intimately. At the first rehearsal of Perloff’s final directing job as A.C.T.’s artistic director, she introduced colleagues, actors, and staff members to her vision for The Birthday Party, and discussed why she is returning to this darkly comedic play.

A.C.T. Dramaurg Michael Paller and director Carey Perloff at the first rehearsal for The Birthday Party.
Perloff’s relationship with Pinter runs deeper than her knowledge of his canon—the two worked closely when she was staging The Birthday Party for its reprisal at CSC, and remained friends and collaborators until his death in 2008. The lessons she learned from him in the rehearsal room have remained with her to this day. “To be with a writer in the room is the greatest gift ever,” she said. “All you have to do is listen to them open their mouths, and suddenly the music of the play makes complete sense.”

Firdous Bamji (Stanley) and Scott Wentworth (Goldberg)
at the first rehearsal for The Birthday Party.
In The Birthday Party, solitary and disheveled Stanley (played by Firdous Bamji) has been living at a seaside British boardinghouse for some time, but his quiet life is disturbed when two strangers, Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) and McCann (Marco Barricelli) arrive at the house. Pinter doesn’t explicitly lay out for his audience what the nature of this terror is. We know that two men have come to do damage to a third, but we don’t know why. This may seem as if the play is a narrative about victimization and oppression, but Perloff maintains that The Birthday Party is about resistance more than anything. “There are little acts of defiance in this play that are just extraordinary,” said Perloff. “If we’re thinking, ‘Why this play now?’ so much of it is that to me: What is the nature of the human spirit that defies fascism? That defies groupthink? That tries to assert itself even in the face of an evil we can’t put a name on.”

As Perloff prepares to bring The Birthday Party to The Geary for the first time, she is ready for the challenges that a Pinter play presents, and excited to have her directing muscles stretched. “Harold always said that doing his plays was like an athletic event,” she said. “You step onto the deck and the clock goes. There’s no wind-up time. It is the most thrilling thing to work on because it just exercises your muscle like no other writer—it’s a beautiful and amazing experience.”

The Birthday Party begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater January 10 and runs through February 4. Click here to purchase tickets.
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