The whiff of menace enters the room right at the top of The Birthday Party, the 1958 Harold Pinter dark comedy now on view at Deep Ellum's Undermain Theatre. An older couple, Petey and Meg (T.A. Taylor and Mary Lang), are going about their daily breakfast ritual in the dining room of the shabby British seaside boarding house they run. She asks him if his cornflakes are nice. He takes one bite and pushes them away. She asks him if his newspaper is nice. He keeps on reading and ignores her.
There are the requisite Pinter pauses -- long beats that leave just enough time for our imaginations to fill in the blanks -- and just enough humor in the Petey-and-Meg banter to trick us into thinking this will be light comedy. Oh, no. Things start to darken with the addition of boarder Stanley Webber (Gregory Lush) to the breakfast table. He's unshaven and dressed in a silk smoking jacket, sort of sexy and glam in a down-at-heels way. Meg dotes on Stanley, which he answers by complaining about the sour milk on his cereal and the dirty condition of his room upstairs.
Only when Meg mentions that she's run into two strangers in town, Mr. Goldberg (Bruce DuBose) and Mr. McCann (Marcus D. Stimac), does Stanley's snotty attitude crumble. He seems anxious about a visit from these two. Is Stanley on the run? Or is the boarding house his safe house?
Pinter never provides the answers, of course. By the second act, Goldberg and McCann are interrogating Stanley with a barrage of nonsense questions about a wife he might have strangled (among other horrors). Meg interrupts the verbal assault to throw Stanley a birthday party, at which Goldberg and McCann become of the center of attention. There's lots of drinking and singing and then a burst of violence from Stan, aimed at a party guest, pretty Lulu (Katherine Bourne). The third act finds Stanley nearly catatonic as the visitors lead him away. Petey and Meg turn back to their morning tea, as if nothing at all has occurred.
It's a brilliant, disturbingly witty play, the first to bring Pinter the critical notices he needed to be deemed an important 20th century playwright. He would be named a Nobel Laureate in 2005. He died in 2008.
The Birthday Party contains touches of Orwell, Kafka and even a little Laurel and Hardy in its absurdly comic take on what seems to be a case of thugs preying on an ordinary man at the behest of some mysterious tyrant. Pinter grew more politically outspoken in his later years. But in this early play there are signs that he had big things to say about government and religion (Goldberg is Jewish, McCann is Irish Catholic).
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Undermain's production, directed by Patrick Kelly, is a stunner. The cast, particularly Lush and Stimac, have tight hold of their U.K. accents and on the difficult rhythms of Pinter's dialogue. Tony-winning scenic designer John Arnone dresses the boarding house in green palm-frond wallpaper bedecked with enormous sparkly red poppies that look like bloodshot eyes staring back at the audience.
What a fine, unsettling, satisfying two-plus hours of live theater.
The Birthday Party continues through June 2 at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St. in Deep Ellum. For tickets ($15-$25), 214-747-5515. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8:15 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays.