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Clash upends 'Birthday Party' at the Geffen Playhouse

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Hold your RSVPs to the Geffen Playhouse's revival of Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party."

The highly anticipated production, staged by Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, has been abruptly called off only two weeks before its official opening.

Leaders at the Geffen said that the production has been postponed to an unspecified future date. The cause of the postponement was the sudden departure of British actor Steven Berkoff, with accounts differing as to whether he resigned voluntarily or was effectively dismissed from the production.

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The actor said in an interview that he and Friedkin clashed heatedly over the play during rehearsals and that he made the decision himself to leave.

"The Birthday Party" was to have starred Tim Roth in the lead role of a piano player named Stanley living in a seaside boarding house. The production was scheduled to begin preview performances Tuesday, open the night of Feb. 12, and run through March 16.

Berkoff was set to play Goldberg, one of two menacing visitors who disrupts the protagonist's birthday celebration.

Friedkin said in an interview that Berkoff was let go from the production and that he and the Geffen weren't able to find a suitable replacement in the available time. "I have never let an actor go before. I feel bad about it," said the director.

He said that the role of Goldberg requires the talent of a great British actor. "Many of the people we wanted [for the replacement] were not available in time to get this mounted properly. It does need one of the British lions to do this justice."

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Friedkin said he is 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 standard," he said.

In a separate interview, Berkoff said that there was no hostility when rehearsals began in early January.

"I don't want to malign the man [Friedkin]. He's a very fine movie director," said Berkoff, speaking by phone from England. "At the beginning, he was charming and nice — we got on very well."

But the actor said he and Friedkin ended up clashing a number of times over the play, including his portrayal of his character, Goldberg. He said their arguments involved some strong words and angry exchanges.

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"The conflict grew, and as I'm provoked, I answered him back," said the actor.

Berkoff said he resigned from the production on Jan. 16 and flew back to England the following Sunday. "It was my decision," he said. 

Friedkin said in an email that Berkoff "was allowed to resign to preserve his dignity. Had he not resigned, he would have been fired."

Berkoff has appeared in numerous stage and screen productions over the course of a four-decade-plus career. In Britain he has written, directed and acted for the theater. He has also toured internationally and brought shows to the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in L.A., including appearances in 1990 and '99.

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Following the actor's departure from the Geffen, Friedkin began looking for an actor to fill in the role of Goldberg. But the search didn't turn up any viable candidates within the given time.

"It was an endless search that didn't seem to go anywhere," said one individual with knowledge of the situation but who wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the production.

Randall Arney, artistic director of the Geffen, declined to comment on the situation. The company said that it will announce a new season offering for the summer.

Friedkin directed a film version of "The Birthday Party" in 1968. He worked closely with Pinter and said he considered the late Nobel Prize-winning dramatist to be a mentor.

The director won an Oscar in 1972 for "The French Connection." In recent years, Friedkin has directed a number of stage productions, including operas by Puccini with the Los Angeles Opera. He has also directed operas in Europe.

Friedkin said that he intends to mount "The Birthday Party" after he recasts the role of Goldberg. "I wouldn't put it up there unless I could do it with the best cast possible," he said.

david.ng@latimes.com

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