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

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.

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