Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party" made its American debut with the San Francisco Actors Workshop in 1960. Glynn Wicham of the Old Vic directed. Alan Mandell was assistant director. Mandell will direct it at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where it opens Thursday.
Mandell keeps a relatively low profile as consulting director with LATC, but he was there at the American beginning of what remains the last reasonably coherent movement in modern theater--he was involved in the landmark production of "Waiting for Godot" at San Quentin, the signal work for what was later termed Theater of the Absurd. How has "The Birthday Party" worn the years?
"In the early days, it was considered part of an extravagant foreign movement," he said. "Twenty-six years later, it doesn't seem extravagant or even absurd. What strikes me is how realistic it seems, and how relevant its ideas are.
" 'The Birthday Party' is the play around which the term Theater of Menace was coined. The lady of the house tells two visitors it's Stanley's birthday, though it really isn't. They've come to take him away to make a mensch of him, a success. It's difficult to assign a single literary meaning here, but the visitors represent values of acceptance in society, including prestige, family, success. Stanley is in a squeeze play in a comedic version of Kafka's 'The Trial.'
"It's also about the plight of the failed artist. Stanley's a concert pianist who's bombed out. It's hard enough to be a failed accountant; for the failed artist, there's no forgiveness. I just saw a line by Arthur Miller today where he said, 'A playwright lives in occupied territory. He's the enemy. If he can't live like that, he can't stay there.' "
"The Birthday Party" was also done at New York's Lincoln Center during the period (1965-73) when Mandell was general manager. "There have been some script changes since then," Mandell noted. "It's less surrealistic now. When we were discussing at the Los Angeles Theatre Center what plays to include in our classics series, it seemed to me that this had to be one of them."
Los Angeles Theatre Center will also be the site of one of the few local theatrical celebrations of black history month when Edmund Cambridge's Black Ensemble Theatre stages a series of performances Friday through Sunday. Poetry, spirituals, scenes from classic black plays and a storytelling session are on tap, and the Media Forum Players will reconvene for a special Saturday-night reading from their PBS production, "Voices of My People."
Cambridge formed his troupe two years ago to help black actors sharpen their skills. His biggest concern isn't about the quality of black performance but the quality of black writing. "Most of the writers are confined to an old format," he said. "I'm tired of doing 'Raisin in the Sun' and 'Amen Corner,' even though they're still relevant. The new writing I see now is geared for TV. Nobody's questioning, everybody's very safe. It's dull, boring, and very sad, because underneath the surface of black life today, the unrest is nerve-wracking."
Inner City Cultural Center is the site for the Hollywood Theatre Company's production of Philip Yordan's "Anna Lucasta," currently running through March 8. That's pretty much it, as far as the theater's acknowledgement of black history month is concerned.
Richard Venture--actor, playwright and director--has been working in the theater 35 years.(His most recent stage job was in "The Map of the World" at New York's Public Theatre.) His "Foxe's Run" opens Friday at the Tracy Roberts. "It's a comedy-drama about a man who's dying of a brain tumor and takes off to live in the woods in Oregon," Venture said. "It's a summing-up play that's not autobiographical--I'm 62--but does have a lot of my ideas in it. I'm interested in how life and death define each other. We live so much of our lives anticipating things--love, travel, money--that we live apart from our own lives. James Baldwin said it for me when he observed, 'Most people are only present in their lives.' "
The La Brea Tar Pits is only one of the several scenes in Alan Gross' "La Brea Tar Pits," opening Monday at Cast-at-the-Circle. The other sites combine to form in one woman's mind a vision of Los Angeles as a kind of Eden. "That," according to director Rene Temple (one of the founders of the improv group "War Babies"), "is what she expects when she comes west to visit her ex-husband and see if there's anything left in the relationship. It's a very funny play about how people just push each other's buttons the wrong way. Anyone who's had a relationship where the communication gets so bad that you want to scream, or have to scream, will recognize themselves here. That would have to be just about everybody."
Karen Kaye and Bart Braverman, two other War Babies alums, play the beleaguered pair.