Stage Animal The Problem With Pinter

Surprisingly, it is the play's realism, not its absurdist incomprehensibility, that is to blame for the lack of magic in Oded Kotler's staging of 'The Birthday Party' Somewhere back in 1965, about a year before Oded Kotler gave up playing Hamlet in the Cameri Theater's production (he decided to quit while still in rehearsals because he did not understand the vision of Polish director Konrad Swinarski), the same theater was also presenting a play by a contemporary English playwright, back before his name became an adjective to describe a certain kind of theater - Harold Pinter.

It was "The Birthday Party," directed by Leonard Schach. In deciding to produce this play, the Cameri had taken a considerable risk. Of another of Pinter's plays, "The Caretaker," which the Cameri put on in 1961, Dr. Haim Gamzu wrote in Haaretz: "A jaw-spraining yawn."

I cannot say whether "The Birthday Party" was an artistic or box office success at the time. I can, however, testify that for me personally and the members of my generation, it was a cult performance, and I saw it a number of times.

There was something oddly captivating in the fact that I didn't understand what was happening onstage: I could not answer the question of the identity of Stanley, the strange, nondescript person living in Meg and Petey's roominghouse. (Stanley was played by Shimon Bar, who a short time later replaced Kotler as Hamlet). Nor could I say why two strange men (played by Yossi Graber and Zeev Revach) appeared at the roominghouse one day to take him away. I could not understand whether Meg (Rachel Marcus), who had a slight case of the hots for her lodger, and Petey (Nissan Yatir), understood what was happening and why. But the stage held an atmosphere of terror and magic. It was an enticing, funny and scary mystery - something ordinary yet concealing a secret.

Since then, 45 years have gone by. Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature and his name, as noted, became an adjective signifying a theatrical style based on long silences and an incomprehensible reality. Some of his plays, among them "The Birthday Party" and "Betrayal," have become classics; his political involvement became well-known. There are plays of his I do not understand to this day, even if I have seen them in wonderful performances. And it is with delight that I tell the story of a letter sent to Pinter by a frustrated theatergoer who saw "The Birthday Party" in 1958: "I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are the two men? 2. Where did Stanley come from? 3. Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your play."

Pinter replied: "Dear Madam: I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your letter. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are you? 2. Where do you come from? 3. Are you supposed to be normal? You will understand that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your letter."

The seemingly evasive answer is in fact quite to the point. We live in a reality in which most of the time we do not have sufficient information, reliable or otherwise, to understand it. Nor are we any longer certain what the word "normal" means and who decides. And in this regard there is an added twist in that Kotler is currently directing "The Birthday Party" at the Hangar in Jaffa, which he is renting from Gesher Theater. In England in the 1960s, for two people to come out of nowhere and take a person from his home to a mysterious location without explaining why (while everyone takes this for granted), was something that was not normal, perhaps absurd and certainly ominous. But during those same years, in the Communist part of Europe, this was an everyday occurrence and everyone knew what was happening and why, and they did not ask questions.

During the 52 years since "The Birthday Party" was written Kotler has not been idle. He has been manager of several theaters, he created interest in original plays in the Israeli theater and was one of the first in Israel to introduce subscriptions to expand and encourage theater attendance. He has directed, acted, managed, spoken and remained as enthusiastic, curious, fluent and fresh as he was in the very beginning. His new baby is "Theater Works" - intimate plays from the modern repertoire, with people he wants to work with, for a limited number of performances, without surrendering to commercial dictates (though he is already talking, ironically, it seems to me, about a subscription scheme for this enterprise).

Kotler's other baby is Pinter: He has already initiated the staging and reading of his plays in various frameworks and is currently directing "The Birthday Party." On the surface, what could go wrong? A play of proven quality, nearly a milestone of the modern theater, and creative partners with whom Kotler has a long history: Liora Rivlin (his ex-wife) and Gedalia Besser (her current life partner), from the glory days of the Haifa Theater; Nina Kotler (his and Rivlin's daughter); Miki Leon, from Gesher 2, with whom he worked when he directed at Gesher; and Dov Glickman and Yoav Hait as the two men.

All of them talented, all of them experienced. What could go wrong? Just put up some decent scenery and let the play do its job, tell the story and let the Pinteresque moments of humor, embarrassment, evasion, threat and absurdity (in the existential sense) open out and enchant the viewer. We are, after all, supposedly somewhat conditioned to accept with understanding the fact that we don't understand what is happening and to allow ourselves to feel for the characters, each of them with his troubles and caprices.

But the thing is, it simply doesn't work. I can't even put my finger on the reason. Is it because the the roominghouse door (the shoestring-budget set was designed by Daniella Mor) creaks like a badly hung stage set door? Or is it perhaps because each of the actors operates in their own world, without creating any shared reality? Or maybe because so much attention was paid to individual reactions (Petey-Besser knows that the food Meg-Rivlin serves him isn't tasty, but he pretends), and not enough to creating a comprehensive reality that is greater than the sum of the details of the characters' behavior?

The biggest problem, it seems to me, is that Pinter's theater, innovative as it is, contemporary, modern, political and existential, ultimately - certainly in this play - is entirely realistic. That is to say, despite all the strange things happening on stage and despite all the information we lack about what motivates the characters' behavior, it is all predicated on our need to believe the reality on stage has validity.

And even though as viewers we are all of us wise, all of us aware that this is theater and that up there are actors pretending to be characters - something has to happen there, by virtue of their imagination and ours, so that suddenly we truly will not understand why those things are happening there, who those people are and whether they are normal.

And that something doesn't happen. There isn't a shred of terror on the stage and there are no unresolved questions. We know who these people are (Rivlin, Besser, Leon, Glickman, Hait and Nina Kotler), and we know where they came from and that they are completely normal. They behave as they do because those are the lines in the play Pinter wrote, which has already become a classic. And when at the end of the play Leon comes down wearing a proper suit and follows Glickman and Hait toward the door, and Besser calls after him, "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do!" - we know they are going backstage and that they will come out again to take a bow.

And something in me wants to ask who those actors are and why they are doing what they are doing, and whether I am normal in trying to pretend I believe them.