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THEATER REVIEW: “The Birthday Party”

Who needs ghosts when you’ve got two unknown men arriving in a mysterious van that may or may not contain a wheelbarrow, but almost certainly will mean difficult times for at least one character in Harold Pinter’s 1958 “The Birthday Party.”

New Fortune Theatre Company (co-founded by Richard Baird and Amanda Schaar) presents Pinter’s first full-length play through Aug. 30 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.

The setting is a seaside British boarding house run by Petey (Marcus Overton) and his slightly dotty wife Meg (Dana Hooley), who have been hosts to exactly one guest in the last year – the unkempt, haunted-looking 30-something Stanley (Max Macke), who may or may not be harboring a horrible secret.

Meg and Petey have a stable but perhaps emotionally unsatisfying marriage; she seems to have invested considerable time and emotional energy into her probably imagined relationship (if that’s the word) with Stanley.

When two new boarders arrive, Meg is thrilled, Petey noncommittal, Stanley close to hysterical. The strangers are McCann (Richard Baird) and Goldberg (Matthew Henerson), and two more dissimilar characters would be difficult to find. Goldberg is expansive and personable; McCann just the opposite, with rigid posture, slicked-down hair and slits for eyes. McCann just wants to “do the job and get out.”

The nature of “the job” is not specified, but it involves breaking Stanley down psychologically by means of a rat-a-tat interrogation technique that leaves him unable to communicate with words but only by noises.

Nothing is clear, least of all the facts about why this is happening, but that’s not the point here. Pinter is developing what would become a trademark – a quirky combination of realism and absurdism that focuses on characters rather than plot, and can’t be summed up easily. There is a fair amount of dark humor here, but you may be a bit uncomfortable laughing.

“The Birthday Party” was savaged by critics when it opened in England in 1958 – largely because of this style – but has since been recognized as one of Pinter’s most significant works.

Director Richard Baird gets terrific performances from his cast, setting the ominous tone himself with his chilling portrayal of McCann. He is balanced nicely by Henerson’s more likable, seemingly even kindlier Goldberg.

Macke’s portrayal of a textbook case of walking guilt is brilliant. This is a shell of a man, apparently waiting to be caught, found, or helped.

Hooley’s Meg is sadly amusing, even a bit reminiscent of her earlier excellent portrayal of a similar character – Winnie in Beckett’s “Happy Days.”

Overton is a solid Petey, the husband who seems to live in his own world. Schaar’s Lulu, who may or may not be a hooker (but is amusing as she latches onto Goldberg as the most promising of the available males) complete this unusual cast.

North Coast Repertory Theatre recently mounted a fine production of “Betrayal,” another Pinter play. Baird was also in that one, and he appropriated NCRT’s resident set designer, Marty Burnett, for this play, to good effect.

Matt Novotny designed the lighting; Baird and Justin Lang created the sound and selected the period music. Baird and Amanda Schaar designed the costumes.

This is a fine production of a difficult play. It is the second production for the fledgling New Fortune Theatre Company, whose “Henry V” last year (presented at ion theatre) walked off with two Craig Noel awards from local critics.

Let’s hope this excellent company soon finds a home.

The details

New Fortune Theatre Company’s production of “The Birthday Party” plays through August 30, 2015 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard.

Showtimes are: Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: newfortunetheatre.com

UPDATE This review now reflects that the New Fortune Theatre Company was co-founded by Richard Baird and Amanda Schaar, not Richard Baird and Matthew Henerson as previously reported.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.