It came as a shock to the entire Los Angeles theatrical community. Friday's announcement by the Geffen Playhouse's Artistic Director Randall Arney: "Due to unforeseen circumstances, Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, to be directed by William Friedkin, has been postponed."
The show was to have begun pre-opening performances on Tuesday, and to have officially opened on February 12. Now, another show will be offered later in its stead. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Friedkin said that it was due to the departure of actor Steven Berkoff, and the inability find a suitable replacement in the available time. Friedkin said that rehearsals were underway for about a week before he made the decision to let Berkoff go.
"I have never let an actor go before," the director told the newspaper. "I feel bad about it, but you have to have a great actor in that role, no question." Berkoff was to have played the role of Goldberg, one of two menacing strangers who interrupt the protagonist's birthday party.
Friedkin said he was in talks with actors to fill the role but declined to provide names. "I don't want to disappoint the audience, and won't produce anything that isn't up to my standards," he said.
Cover of Friedkin's recent memoir
I had spent the previous week preparing a story about the upcoming show and my long history with it -- and we would have run it today. Lucky for me (and my Huffington readers), the notice of the postponement came just as we were going to file. Rather than let it go to waste, I am taking the liberty of telling you a shortened version of it here:
A mesmerizing and significant theatrical event is coming to the Geffen Playhouse on February 12. It is Harold Pinter's fascinating thriller, The Birthday Party, the first play written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. It will be directed by William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director famed for The French Connection and The Exorcist. It happens to be a work with which I am intimately acquainted, because I was involved in the filming of it over 40 years ago with Friedkin directing.
In the late '60s, my business partner Edgar Sherick and I were hired by Leonard Goldenson, chairman of the ABC network, to establish a boutique film production company, Palomar Pictures. During the five years we were active in it, we produced/financed a dozen or so films, including the much-heralded They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and my first personal production, For Love of Ivy, which starred Sidney Poitier. I had known Billy Friedkin since he was directing hard-hitting TV shows in Chicago, and during the time he directed his first feature, a light comedy starring Sonny and Cher filmed in Texas. After an almost-happening picture called The Hostages, we continued to look for an opportunity to work together.
In 1968, at Palomar, we met with Friedkin to see if there was something he wanted to do, and he mentioned his passion for a play by Harold Pinter called The Birthday Party. He told us he had seen it in 1962 in San Francisco, during its first American production, and it had remained lodged in his mind. "It had created sensation in England a few years earlier," he told us, and described it compellingly as "a comedy of menace."
Sherick and I read it and agreed that it offered promise, and if we could make it in England for under a million dollars, it offered little risk. My partner suggested that I go to London to meet with Pinter and his agent about locking in the film rights, and I did so. Harold Pinter by then was an established, successful playwright well on his way to the Nobel Prize in Literature he would soon receive. He was surprised someone wanted to make The Birthday Party, describing to me the initial production of the show. It had not found an audience and was a lost cause, closing, when suddenly the most esteemed theatre critic in London wrote a career-changing review, and Pinter was well on his way to an amazing career.
Pinter acquiesced to our getting the film rights, with the proviso that he meet Friedkin before the deal closed. As Friedkin describes in his recent memoir, The Friedkin Connection, he flew to London and met with Pinter to outline his thoughts. "I was 31-years-old and had burned a lot of bridges in Hollywood. The year I spent with Pinter on the screen adaptation of his first play was an awakening and a life-changing lesson in the art of creating serious suspenseful drama." I made note of a quote of a wonderful line from L.P. Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, which Pinter told Friedkin: "The past is a foreign country, They do things differently there."
Under Pinter's watchful eye, they cast it with Robert Shaw in the lead role of Stanley, the actor famous for playing the villain in the Bond film, To Russia With Love, along with a cast of estimable British actors. The picture was a superb thriller, but never found an audience. And Friedkin went on to receive his Academy Award forThe French Connection.
Tim Roth was to have played the lead role. Photo from Geffen.
I am not going to detail the plot of the play here, merely saying that The Birthday Party is a mysterious and wry riff on the absurd terrors we face every day. Geffen and Friedkin have assembled an acclaimed cast of British stage and screen actors, with Tim Roth in the lead role, with Frances Baber, Steven Berkoff and Nick Ullett joining him. Remember the gripping Ernest Hemingway short story "The Killing," which was filmed with Burt Lancaster? It may remind you a bit of that, and Pinter admitted to me he was inspired by it.
Here, we open on a rundown boarding house in an English seaside town near Brighton. There is one tenant, a strange fellow named Stanley. Then one day two imposing strangers arrive at the house seeking... Stanley? The unkempt housekeeper proclaims it is Stanley's birthday, and she is going to have a birthday party for him... and the action begins to unfold. Menace arrives and mayhem ensues.
I can only hope that eventually they find their way to put on this engrossing drama, something which L.A. audiences will find fascinating.
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