Theatre Intime Presents Pinter’s “Celebration” and “Party Time”; Double Bill Highlights a Caustic View of Affluent Social Gatherings
“CELEBRATION/PARTY TIME”: Theatre Intime has staged two plays by Harold Pinter: “Celebration” and “Party Time.” Directed by Kat McLaughlin, the double bill was presented September 30-October 9 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left,are Gavin (Andrew Duke), Melissa (Ellie Makar-Limanov), Terry (Solomon Bergquist), and Dusty (Lara Danisman) in “Party Time.” (Photo by Emily Yang)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has opened its season with a double bill of one-act plays by Harold Pinter (1930-2008): Celebration and Party Time. Both works offer a caustic look at social gatherings of the affluent and powerful.
Celebration (2000) depicts two concurrent dinners at an expensive restaurant, while the darker Party Time (1991) portrays a lavish house party, some of whose guests are connected with sinister political machinations.
Both plays are directed by Kat McLaughlin, who effectively uses the scripts’ examination of social hierarchies as a point of departure for an exploration of physical space. “What is it to exist in, to observe, to desperately maintain a space?” McLaughin asks rhetorically in a program note. She explains that she chose Celebration as a “comedy to mirror, reflect, and lighten the tensions raised in Party Time.” She acknowledges that the plays are “similar in tone.”
Celebration begins when a mild-mannered, dignified Waiter (Solomon Bergquist) strides from the audience to the dark stage. Lighting Designer Nicabec Casido lights the two tables only after the Waiter has approached them. Behind one of the tables is a bar, at which the Waiter stands for much of the play, further separated from the affluent clientele. Later, he moves claustrophobically between a wall and a chair to wait one of the tables.
Seated at the first table are brothers Lambert (Andrew Duke) and Matt (Faisal Fakhro), both of whom are self-described “strategy consultants”; and sisters Prue (Julian Gottfried) and Julie (Ellie Makar-Limanov). Lambert and Julie are married, as are Matt and Prue. The two couples are celebrating Lambert and Julie’s wedding anniversary.
Russell, a banker (Rilla McKeegan) and Suki, his one-time secretary (Antea Garo) are seated at the other table. Late in the play, we discover that the two parties are linked by the fact that Lambert and Suki had a brief relationship when they were younger.
Periodically, restaurant managers Richard (Jonah Clatterbuck) and Sonia (Wasif Sami) interrupt the diners’ conversations. Richard discovers that the diners at table one have been to a ballet, and asks what it was. “Good question,” deadpans Lambert. Julie’s low opinion of the meal does not prevent her or Prue from flirting heavily with Richard; they tease him with double entendre-laden remarks.
The Waiter approaches both tables, and asks permission to “interject.” This always is a cue for a bizarre story about his grandfather, who he claims was intimately acquainted with numerous luminaries in the worlds of literature and film.
At the end of the meal, Lambert exuberantly hugs Richard and Sonia, giving them both a lavish tip (instructing the latter to put hers “in your suspenders”). The Waiter offers a final rambling monologue about a telescope that his grandfather gave him.
McLaughlin concludes the play with a bit of staging that creates a deft bookend to the beginning. The Waiter stays on stage to deliver his speech; the diners, however, move into the audience. The Waiter still is separate from the diners, but the characters have changed their physical spaces (if not their personalities).
The set design is by Sabina Jafri, in collaboration with McLaughlin. The stage is largely reconfigured for Party Time. The dining tables are replaced by a couch and an assortment of chairs. The bar, however, remains to link the two plays, as does a door that seems to want us to wonder what is happening on the other side of it.
Bergquist is given a role that sharply contrasts with Celebration’s Waiter — and is equally engaging in both. In Party Time he plays Terry, a debonair — but domineering and misogynistic — connoisseur of luxurious clubs, which he describes to the party’s host, Gavin (Duke, who again plays the instigator of a gathering).
Listening to many of the conversations in this play in tandem with Celebration makes it easy to become impatient with the incessant pointlessness of these somewhat archetypal characters’ lives, and the disjointed randomness of their dialogue, but that seems to be the point.
Terry’s wife Dusty (Lara Danisman) enters and inquires, “Did you hear what’s happened to Jimmy?” Later we learn that Jimmy (Emily Yang) is Dusty’s brother. Terry brusquely instructs Dusty to drop the subject, and tell Gavin more about the club; she complies. McLaughin uses vertical levels, often having Terry physically tower over Dusty, accentuating Terry’s domination. In one key moment Terry talks to other characters, while Dusty stoically sits behind him, stony-faced.
Another woman, Melissa (Makar-Limanov) enters and observes that the streets outside are deserted, except for “some … soldiers.” Terry orders Melissa some wine from a Bartender (Clatterbuck, who again plays a character who is there to ensure the happiness of the guests, rather than enjoy the event himself).
Other guests include Liz (Ava Kronman), who furiously tells Charlotte (McKeegan) about her hatred for a romantic rival. Meanwhile, Fred (Gottfried) and Douglas (Fakhro), discuss politics. Douglas enigmatically remarks that events transpiring on the streets are progressing “like clockwork.” In a subtle but inescapable bit of prop placement, there happens to be a clock on the table between the two men.
Costume designer Aleha Amjad uses a distinctive color scheme for each play. Most of the outfits for Celebration almost blend in with the tablecloths. This is apt, because it is clear that the upscale restaurant is something of a second home to these diners — they almost have become part of it. (Suki wears a dark outfit that corresponds to the Waiter’s vest — and the artfully uninviting black walls). For Party Time the palette broadens (Dusty wears a red dress, setting her apart from several characters who wear darker colors).
As with Celebration, certain characters in Party Time link the separate cliques. Terry and Melissa are members of the same club, and Charlotte knows Fred, who she says gave her a “leg up in life.” We learn that Charlotte is a widow; she ominously states that her late husband “wasn’t ill.”
Dusty again asks about Jimmy. Terry oppressively tells her that the issue is “not on anyone’s agenda.” Dusty retorts that it is on hers, prompting a comment from Gavin about “men who can’t control their wives.”
In a coda to the play, Jimmy enters. He addresses the audience rather than the partygoers, delivering an eerie, cryptic monologue. “Sometimes I hear things. Then it’s quiet. I had a name. It was Jimmy.”
Remembering McLaughlin’s question, the monologue makes us wonder what it is to exist in Jimmy’s space. In Harold Pinter’s Party Time (Routledge, 2016), G.D. White notes that the play premiered shortly after a “wave of largely non-violent revolutions that swept eastern Europe in 1989,” and suggests that Jimmy is in some sort of prison, in proximity to … horror afflicting others.”
McLaughlin’s selection and staging of these two plays suggests that the answer to her question depends on whether one has the means to control one’s space. The restaurant staffers in Celebration have their personal space invaded (by condescending physical affection), while the powerful guests in Party Time are desperately maintaining their space of safety from the unrest their actions are creating. Outsider characters such as Dusty and the Waiter largely are resigned to observing the proceedings in the spaces they inhabit.
In exploring these themes, McLaughlin and the designers skillfully use the space afforded by the Hamilton Murray Theater — and the actors, several of whom use body language to considerable effect — to create powerful, visually appealing (if unsettling) stage pictures.