Harold Pinter’s short play “Party Time” offers a toxic serving of privileged indifference, with a side of cheese and crackers.
An apartment full of wealthy elitists sip wine and talk about a luxurious new club, while outside there are roadblocks and sirens, and helicopters clatter overhead. Neither the country nor the specific brand of oppression is identified, but the smugness of the partygoers becomes claustrophobic. “What on earth’s going on out there?” one character asks. “It’s like the Black Death.”
When one of the guests inquires about her missing brother, she is berated and hushed up. But the truth can only be repressed for so long.
Does this sound like a party you’d want to attend? Darren Evans hopes so.
Evans, producing artistic director of the Theatre on Fire troupe, chose “Party Time” for the company’s second annual Home Invasion program. The play, with a cast of nine, will be performed 11 times between Friday and Aug. 10, in 11 different locations around Boston. Most are private homes.
Last year’s Home Invasion selection, “Vincent River” by Philip Ridley, was a two-hander that took place entirely around a dining table and in the adjacent kitchen. Although the performances were in homes around the city, the audience sat to one side, looking on, as in a theater.
In contrast, “Party Time” is really going to be a party, with theatergoers serving as extra guests. There will be food and wine, and the cast and audience will share the space.
“Actually the party atmosphere will make it more conducive to being in people’s houses,” says Emma Goodman, who plays the stylish Charlotte. “You don’t have to worry about the seating, you don’t have to worry about things like that, because at a party this is what actually happens.”
Evans says the maximum audience size is about 25. Some shows have been bought out by the hosts, who will invite their own audience. But more than half will be open to the public, although tickets must be bought in advance.
Creating a party from scratch in a new venue each night should lend an immediacy to the play, says Evans, but it also means more work.
“Every night is a completely different space,” says Evans, who directs. “We need to figure out the entrances and exits and where the couch is. My cast shows up basically 90 minutes before show time, having seen three pictures of the space, and begins adapting immediately.” He laughs. “Well, maybe not immediately, but they’ll start figuring it out.”
“There is a level of challenge to it, but I think everybody is looking forward to it,” says Chris Wagner, who plays Fred.
On this Saturday afternoon, they’re rehearsing in a former machine shop on a run-down back street in Jamaica Plain, with a handful of friends recruited as audience. “You’re in mingle mode right now,” Evans says, as the cast circulates before the play begins.
The rough-hewn space, used as an office, will host a “Party Time” performance in August. But Evans is less concerned with venue specifics than with the fluid choreography of conversations.
“The writing is amazing, and a lot of what goes on in the play is subtext,” he says. “It’s about glances across the room and people with these big fake smiles on their faces. And it really translates great in close-up. Not that the audience will see everything, but they’ll have a chance to see all those tiny, tiny nuances when someone says one thing but they totally mean the opposite thing.”
Pinter, a Nobel laureate who died in 2008 at 78, was thinking about a variety of regimes when he wrote the 1991 play, Evans says, and while the world’s problems are not precisely the same today, “Party Time” is unfortunately still current. Waterboarding and the US war on terror have brought issues such as torture more prominently into public discussion. And as the present mess in Egypt shows, he says, “you can have a democratic, civil society that can be not democratic, not civil, and in fact authoritarian and quite nasty.”
In most cases, Evans says, “the people who are pulling the levers, these people are having nice wine and nice food, but they still make very bad things happen.”
Evans says there are strict criteria for choosing a Home Invasion play. It has to be naturalistic, taking place more or less in real time in a single location, with no intermission. Finding one can mean reading a lot of plays, and he is even thinking of commissioning one in the future. But he already had “Party Time” in mind this year.
As a graduate student, Evans directed a thesis production of it at Emerson College about a decade ago, a traditional staged version with undergraduate actors. Now he hopes to correct mistakes he says he made then, notably missing the fun in the play.
“It is a party,” he says.
It’s no secret that the alcoholic beverages and smoking materials used in theater are almost always harmless props. But there will be real food and both red and white wine for “Party Time” cast and audience alike.
At rehearsal, the “Party Time” cast is quaffing water, but the prospect of real vino in their glasses on performance nights barely sparks a chuckle.
“I was in a show once where a guy got to drink a beer. It was his favorite part of the show,” Goodman says. “It helps that this is only a half-hour. You can only get so smashed.”
In rehearsal, one actor splashes himself while gesturing, and another actor spills a glass of water on an audience member. In a notes session after the run-through, costume designer Maureen Festa draws one clear conclusion.
“It might be advisable,” she says, “for the actors to drink only white wine.”