The Birthday Party October 17-19, 24-26, 8 p.m.; October 20, 2 p.m.; $16-$20. Art Square Theatre, cockroachtheatre.com.
Confusion can be good. It can draw you in and demand your absolute attention as you race to keep up, searching for clues—which is the perfect time to set a trap, of course. Harold Pinter did this better than anyone, and the Cockroach Theatre production of his play The Birthday Party is a fist-swinging, drum-banging fever dream that punches in ways you don’t quite follow, even as you register the blows.
Fittingly, it’s grounded in some great physical acting. When Petey (Anthony Farmer) slowly—very slowly—walks in and starts his day at a British seaside boarding house, it’s easy to assume that his character’s physical tics will get old, or get lost. But they stay with him throughout the play, as do the rest of the cast’s: Meg’s (Barbara King) manic smiles, McCann’s (Bryan Todd) finger snapping and more. This is a cast that explores the characters, makes large choices about their physical aspects and then convincingly carries them through the night.
Erik Amblad’s direction is evident as the actors mine for action and subtext. Stanley (Scott McAdam) flirting with Lulu (Jamie Carvelli) as she delivered groceries is a heartbreaking sketch of hope and disappointment. When Goldberg (David Beck) bullies Stanley into sitting down, a brilliant bit of blocking (Stanley sits, but not where Goldberg wants him to) speaks volumes about the characters and their relationship. This richness of thought about the situations runs throughout the play, so that even as Pinter’s absurdity ramps up, the performances and dialogue remain rooted in their own reality. Goldberg and McCann might be screaming what seem to be non-sequitors about the benefits of Stanley rejoining some undescribed organization, but to them, it makes perfect sense.
There are lulls. Goldberg loses some menace as he taunts Stanley with Lulu, and the fourth-wall breaking during a game of blind-man’s bluff seems to tip the audience’s blackout experience away from tense disorientation into something more lighthearted, so that the final moments of the first act startle instead of ravaging. But still, this is a powerhouse of a show, a menacing jolt of nerves and laughter—and a perfect start to Cockroach’s 10th anniversary season.