You probably wouldn’t have wanted the late Harold Pinter as your party planner. Indeed, many didn’t want him as a playwright.

Most critics panned “The Birthday Party,” his first full-length play, when it premiered more than 50 years ago. Now, it’s considered a classic and recognized as the beginning of a creative run that landed Pinter the Nobel Prize in literature decades later.

Under the direction of Michael Howard, Acorn Productions has launched a take on the play that succeeds in conveying that strange, unsettling power that places Pinter in the lineage of Kafka, Beckett and a few others.

The dialogue is often oblique and incomplete, both funny and frightening, and the characters hardly ever seem to connect in healthy ways.

As the play opens, daily routines are disrupted by two strangers who arrive at the seaside boarding home where an older married couple named Petey and Meg and their 30-something guest Stan reside. The strangers, Goldberg and McCann, are after Stan for some unspecified prior transgression. He somehow “betrayed the organization.” We are left to guess what that means.

Not knowing their purpose, Meg invites the men, along with local girl Lulu, to Stan’s birthday party (though he protests that it’s not his birthday). The fun and games quickly turn bizarre and ugly and essentially mark the end of Stan’s stay with Meg and Petey.


The intimate theater carved out of part of an old Westbrook mill is configured for this production so that most of the audience looks down on the stage. This makes for some difficult sightlines for those not in the front row, particularly when the players are seated.

Notwithstanding that issue, the Acorn “Party,” as reviewed Saturday night, makes for an engaging, challenging and amusing night of drama.

Harlan Baker was great fun to watch as his Goldberg takes charge of the action and rarely lets up. His inquisitor mixed flashes of an overbearing charm with lacerating menace as he unravels Stan’s identity through some often hilarious interrogations. Joe Quinn, as the thuggish McCann, had his best moments in the absurd rounds of verbal counterpoint that he and Goldberg use to break down Stan. These are, by far, the best moments of the show.

Joshua Brassard’s nicely brought his Stan on the short journey from housebound “washout” to speechless lump, getting off a couple of anguished howls along the way.

Jeffrey Roberts and Elizabeth Guest, as Petey and Meg, did well at representing a sort of normalcy in Pinter’s weird world. Both know where their laugh lines are and didn’t miss them Saturday. Guest also had particular fun with some naughty bits. Kat Moraros, as Lulu, giggled her way into becoming perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play.

Birthday parties do sometimes turn into roasts but a Pinter party is on a whole other level. Invite yourself to this one and see.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.