`Birthday Party' Has Some Candles Missing

"The Birthday Party" by Harold Pinter. Directed by Mark Jenkins. At Freehold Theatre Lab Studio, 1525 10th Ave. Thursday-Sunday, through Feb. 28. 323-7500. --------------------------------------------------------------- When "The Birthday Party" premiered in 1958, British critic Kenneth Tynan called it "a clever fragment grown dropsical with symbolic content."

That assessment of an early Harold Pinter play seems harsh today. In "The Birthday Party," one finds strong gleamings of the absurdist humor and insinuating menace that this daring young writer would further develop in later works, e.g., "The Caretaker" and "The Homecoming."

But Tynan had a point, too. If "Birthday Party," a three-act paranoid fantasy set in a dreary seaside boardinghouse, is not performed with scrupulous attention to nuance, only the powerhouse Act II delivers the rude Freudian shocks that are Pinter's stock in trade.

The production of "Birthday Party" at Freehold Theatre Lab, while effective in some respects, doesn't sustain the tension.

Actors Marjorie Nelson and Robert Nairn nicely capture the numb drabness of Meg and Petey, an aged British couple whose dull lot is enlivened mainly by the presence of their boarder Stanley (John Billingsley), a misfit, burned-out pianist.

All three are caught in a sort of cozy Oedipal triangle, a jumble of familial and sexual yearnings, dependencies and loathings, sodden cornflakes and fried bread.

Then two mysterious strangers, the Jewish Goldberg (Tony Pasqualini) and his brooding Irish sidekick, McCann (well played by Jeff Klein), show up to bespoil this little nest. That's when the fears and repressions shoved under the threadbare rug come roaring out.

Is Goldberg a gangster? Is McCann a terrorist? Are the two hunting down and punishing Stanley for some reason?

Or is their arrival, resulting in a torturous birthday party cum orgy (with Myra Platt's tarty Lulu) and at least one nervous breakdown, a random absurd phenomenon?

Pinter leaves that to be sorted out. At Freehold, director Mark Jenkins doesn't tip the scales either way. He just makes sure the author's fraught dialogue gets across, and that the birthday fete is the psycho-nightmare it should be.

While Nelson makes a very poignant Meg and Billingsley a suitably freaked-out Stanley, the production's major flaw is Pasqualini's pivotal Goldberg.

It's a long stretch to take Pasqualini for an older, overbearing godfather-type, or to believe the pseudo-Yiddish accent the text requires him to slip in and out of. The actor (and his director) also mistake Goldberg's long and mercurial speeches, which dominate Act III, for monologues.

Without sufficient eye contact and attention to cross-manipulation during these verbal sprees, the dynamics between Goldberg, and Klein's edgy henchman, get lost. And the play gets more "dropsical" - to borrow from Tynan.