Any Happy Returns?

Black Cat Theatre throws itself a grand-opening bash.

The Birthday Party

The Black Cat Theatre, (2810 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood)

Through November 4. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors). Call 314-963-8800 or visit www.BlackCatTheatr

Everything's in place for a great grand-opening party at the new Black Cat Theatre in Maplewood. There's ample parking and plenty of good restaurants within walking distance of the theater. The lobby and bar area is comfortable and trendy. The theater features cabaret-style seating, jazzy pre-show music and another (!) well-staffed, well-stocked bar. The lighting and sound equipment seem topnotch, the stage set rich in detail. As the lights dim in this fun club atmosphere, the partygoers await the arrival of the guest of honor.... But what appears is a disappointing impostor.

The centerpiece of the Black Cat Theatre's grand-opening celebration is Harold Pinter's 1958 play The Birthday Party. Plot-wise it's fairly simple: Two outsiders, McCann and Goldberg, terrorize Stanley, the only boarder at a rundown boarding house operated by Meg and Petey. There are hints of mob connections, secrets and false identities — all covered with surreal wrapping and tied with an absurdist bow.

At first everything seems right with the Black Cat's production. The turquoise walls and elaborate furnishings courtesy of set designer Jim Burwinkle, evoke a seaside cottage. Sound designer John Taylor creates a living world outside the house; the sound of street musicians and seagulls creeps in every time someone opens the front door. The actors each look right for their parts. But the play rarely moves beyond this superficial level of first impressions. It's all surfaces and no substance.

The Birthday Party was Pinter's first commercially produced full-length play. It met with dismal reviews and closed after one week, criticized for being derivative — of Ionesco and Beckett — and banal in its theme, the inadequacy of language. But following the success of later plays (The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter, The Homecoming), Pinter's work was recognized as a new form — the "comedy of menace" — and The Birthday Party was rediscovered as the first example of that form.

Sadly, this production lacks both comedy and menace. Director Wayne Salomon focuses on overplayed sexual innuendo in lieu of intriguing relationships, and underplayed confrontations instead of dynamic action. Cottage owner Meg (Andra Harkins) treats boarder Stanley (Scott Sears) alternately like a son and like a lover, a juxtaposition that should create an uncomfortable tension between characters. In this production, however, Meg is so aggressive that her sexuality drowns out any other considerations. Ellen Clifford, as the neighbor Lulu, also delivers an oversexed performance, leading the audience to wonder why both women are so hot for the slovenly, grouchy Stanley.

The entrance of Goldberg and McCann is the first dramatically interesting moment in the show. James Anthony (Goldberg) and Jason Cannon (McCann) burst into the room with an ominous air. Their scenes are the best in the production, particularly their rapid-fire exchanges when brow-beating Stanley. Cannon imbues McCann with compelling complexity, moving believably from obsessive paper-tearing to violence to a sweetly sung Irish love song. What sets his work apart from most of the other actors is a sense of living through the pauses rather than waiting for them to end. In a similar way, Whit Reichert, as Petey, provides a believable performance, focused on the reality of his little world.

This three-act play should be compelling, humorous and shocking — but never boring. Because this production focuses on the words instead of the relationships, the style instead of the action, it misses the mark. Other onstage distractions include wandering dialects and a sense of confusion about the layout of the house (Stanley's room is indicated off the left hallway, but he gets clothes from the rooms to the right.) Distractions also pull focus from the work onstage: staff members having conversations in the bar areas and traffic noises.

Many new theater companies would choose a safer, better-known play for an inaugural production. The Birthday Party is a bold choice, signaling that artistic director Edie Avioli and executive director Scott Sears plan to challenge their audiences. Their mission, to produce an "off-Broadway style evening of theatre," speaks to future productions that may well be worth celebrating.

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