Whoever is ultimately at fault in the conflict between actor Steven Berkoff and director William Friedkin that led to the postponement of the Geffen Playhouse’s much anticipated production of “The Birthday Party,” there’s no denying that the botched handling of the situation was a loss for the Geffen, the artistic company and Los Angeles theater.
I was looking forward to reencountering this early Pinter classic more than almost any other production this season. The last revival I saw was ages ago off-Broadway, the Classic Stage Company’s astringent 1989 production with Jean Stapleton and David Strathairn. The time has come for a fresh look at this comedy of menace, and Friedkin and Berkoff seemed just the men for the job.
Apparently too much so.
Pinter was forever fascinated by the territorial skirmishes of supposedly civilized men. But the atmosphere evidently grew too Pinteresque in the rehearsal room for Pinter’s playwriting to flourish onstage.
To say that I’m bitterly disappointed that a solution couldn’t be found to the contretemps is an understatement. Berkoff’s reputation for being difficult in rehearsal and the Oscar-winning Friedkin’s relative inexperience as a theater director were clearly a combustible mix.
Normally an artistic director would broker a détente in such a situation or make the decision to replace an actor while there was still time to do so. Where was Geffen artistic director Randall Arney during this turmoil? Your guess is as good as mine, but playing referee to two brawling egos wouldn’t seem to be his specialty.
This “postponement” leaves a gaping hole in the Geffen’s season. According to Friedkin, a replacement wasn’t found because several actors being considered to replace Berkoff weren’t available and the part needs “one of the British lions to do this justice."
That’s hogwash. This is Los Angeles, home to more actors than probably any city in the world. Pinter’s plays have thrived in American hands. And the role hardly requires a star name for the production to succeed.
After posting my frustration on Facebook on Friday morning, I heard from an actor willing to fill in for Berkoff: Obie winner James Urbaniak. He’d be an inspired choice, but even if he were just kidding about his availability it shows how deep the bench is for local talent.
Think about it: It took just a few minutes for my Facebook scribble to go up and a credible name to emerge.
Arney shouldn’t have accepted Friedkin’s self-important avowal not to “produce anything that isn’t up to my standard.” A movie can be released at a later date. Theater hasn’t the luxury of this kind of flexibility, and a nonprofit venue like the Geffen has a tough enough time keeping its financial house in order without this sort of manmade maelstrom.
This is indeed bigger than a director’s temperament. While Friedkin carefully curates his reputation, artists and theatergoers are left in the lurch.
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