Founded in 2005 and the resident company at Charlestown Working Theater, Theatre on Fire promises “hot, high-quality plays that take you out of your comfort zone.” Harold Pinter’s 1991 “Party Time” would have fit the bill in any case, but it was that much hotter and more uncomfortable for opening Friday evening in steamy 90-degree weather.
Directed by Darren Evans, the production is part of Theatre on Fire’s “Home Invasion” program, in which each performance takes place in a different home in and around the Boston area. That’s a great idea for “Party Time,” the whole of which is set on a single evening in a single apartment, where host Gavin (Craig Houk) is throwing what the company describes as “the most exclusive party in town, featuring wine, nosh and a veritable who’s who of power brokers, movers and shakers.” We hear about soldiers and roadblocks outside; there’s been, Gavin explains, some kind of roundup, but “normal services” will be restored shortly. Meanwhile, here come the waiters with more champagne.
“Party Time” is certainly hot under the collar. Guest Terry (Adam Siladi) begins by waxing eloquent about his new club, where you can play tennis and swim and have a fruit juice right there by the pool, or a really hot towel. Or you can sit at a bar and watch people swim toward you underwater. Oh and the cannelloni, he says, “ is really brilliant.” Over the next 30 minutes, Fred (Chris Wagner) and Douglas (Phil Thompson) look for a “cast-iron peace”; Douglas’s wife, Liz (Mary Niederkorn), enthuses over how well dressed everyone at the party is, Fred and Douglas explain to Liz and Charlotte (Emma Goodman) that they’re still so handsome because of the incredibly clean lives they lead, Fred and Charlotte reconnect, and Terry threatens to spank his wife, Dusty (Kiki Samko), if she doesn’t stop asking about her brother Jimmy (Terry Torres). Jimmy, it seems, may be out there somewhere getting rounded up by the soldiers.
Friday’s performance took place in an air-conditioned apartment in Dorchester, where the 15 audience members were greeted and handed a menu promising cheese and crackers, local heirloom grapes, and wine from France and Italy. Two sofas (one of them for cast members) framed the large living room, and a waiter brought glasses of wine to the table where the food was laid out. Bach, Satie, and Debussy played softly over the sound system. After 10 minutes, cast members began to drift into the space from the kitchen. After 20 minutes, the sound of a helicopter was heard, as it is in Pinter’s script, and the performance started.
Charlotte is having a grand time; she calls Gavin’s affair “the best party I’ve been to in years.” But it’s not always fun for the audience. The conversation is disjointed in typical Pinter fashion; it’s also vapid and misogynistic, and though there are intriguing hints at perversity, like Liz’s description of how the man she loves was raped by another woman, there aren’t enough. These upper-class British twits are easy targets, and the play never asks its audience to consider whether they might be us. The nine Theatre on Fire actors are an accomplished lot: I liked the complexity of the way Samko’s Dusty reacted to her abusive husband. And as the last guest, Ann Carpenter’s Melissa, made a dramatic entrance through the apartment’s front door and brought some life to the party. But Gavin and his guests still felt like stick figures.
The hot night dictated that the audience would dress informally. It would be an interesting Home Invasion experiment if, in cooler weather, Theatre on Fire could request audience members to come dressed for a party. Then they’d really be part of the show.