Theater Review: THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE (Henry Murray Stage at the Matrix Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on March 5, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


He’s funny. He’s avuncular. He’s unpretentious. He’s loveable. He’s dry and urbane. And, he’s a decent person. But Nick Ullett is an actor by trade, so you may wonder if he’s that decent offstage (hint: he is). Upstairs at The Matrix Theatre, all you’ll want to do is invite him to your next dinner party, where he’ll gently regale us with inside information about something that has become theater lore. He stands on the Henry Murray Stage — which, without a set, is basically a tiny room — because he has a one-hour story to tell. Ullet, who starred with wife Jenny O’Hara in Bakersfield Mist at the Fountain, first sets us up by going back to the beginning, at least the part where he travels across the Pond with his comedy-mate and starts to get seen in The States. I could’ve listened to just that part — ya know, opening for Lenny Bruce — all night. But Ullett has another story to tell.

So far, I’ve sized him up as being perfect for Gus in Pinter’s The Dumbwaiter or as one of the Pearly Band members in Mary Poppins. Which is perfect because the scandalous tale he imparts frankly nails some folks to the wall, and it concerns L.A.’s own Geffen Theatre, which in 2014 decided to produce a star-studded version of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Pinter’s first success and a very weird play, which is why I adored it while in high school and love it still. Ullett was a member of the cast which included Tim Roth and Steven Berkoff, who coincidentally I just saw in the filmed version of Hamlet with Ian McKellen. I had tickets to attend when the Geffen suddenly pulled the production’s plug.

Now I know why. And the story is a jaw-dropping rib-tickler. It involves the director William Friedkin of The French Connection and Exorcist fame, the latter of which was also A Theatrical Catastrophe at the Geffen (see my review). The account of Birthday Party‘s demise — details of which I intentionally omit here — definitely elucidates The Geffen’s proclivity to cast famous actors with the wrong director at the expense of the production’s value (Moth storyteller Ullett procures more hearty laughs in a few lines than did Geffen’s just-closed production of POTUS, hysterical on Broadway, flat in Westwood).


It’s tough to decipher the work of director Lisa James, who worked with Ullett on another very funny solo outing Dying is EasyComedy is Hard, which had a stint at The Matrix in 2010. No doubt it was her dramaturgical assistance, because the staging has Ullett perform in a bare-bones production Fringe-style. Either way, it’s a highly recommended hoot. I daresay that Ullett will without a doubt be your cup of tea.

photos by John Flynn

The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe
Rogue Machine
Matrix Theatre’s Henry Murray Stage, 7657 Melrose Avenue
Mon (dark March 29) & Fri at 8; Sat & Sun at 5
ends on April 8, 2024
for tickets ($10-$35), visit Rogue Machine
Show4Less: Mar 8 ($10+), Mar 15 ($15+), Mar 22, 30 ($20+)

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