“The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe” at the Matrix

An acclaimed mid-20th century play featuring internationally-recognized co-stars, helmed by an Oscar-winning director and produced by a prestigious Los Angeles theatre company. Sounds great, doesn’t it? That’s what Nick Ullett thought when he was cast as one of a handful of players in Harold Pinter‘s celebrated play The Birthday Party. The revival was happening here in L.A. at the Geffen Playhouse, set for an opening in 2014.

But the production did not transpire. Although casting was set, rehearsals happened, ticket sales thrived and a production budget was lavishly spent, nevertheless egos clashed and the ill-fated show was ultimately cancelled. Ten years later, Ullett has decided to tell the juicy story behind this costly disaster.

Above: Nick Ullett – photo by John Perrin Flynn.

Often cited as one of the most influential modern British dramatists, Harold Pinter was a prolific playwright, screenwriter, actor and director whose career spanned 50 years.

Pinter’s first full-length play, first staged in 1959, announced a new theater voice. Well-received, critics dubbed the absurd three-act drama a “comedy of menace” presumably for its distinct writing style which featured terse dialogue and heavy pauses.

Nick Ullett – photo by Pauline Adamek.

Unfolding as a solo-show in raconteur-style, and both written and performed by Ullett, The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe is being presented in a small space upstairs at the Matrix Theater on Melrose (produced by Rogue Machine). The room is cozy, inviting and bright and, once you enter, you find our host already there and perched on a stool center stage.

Consequently, the intimate staging feels very much like we’ve been invited to a private salon in someone’s home, with the set resembling a living room or maybe even their comfy library. I snuck a photo pre-show to capture its welcoming setting.

Ullett begins his tale and pretty soon we’re all howling with laughter. We hear about the celebrated cast that included Katie Amess, Frances Barber, Steven Berkoff, Tim Roth and Nick Ullett himself.

Much of the comedy lies in the clash between the play’s director William “Call me Billy!” Friedkin and a hostile Berkoff. Aged 78 back in 2013, Friedkin had won Oscars and other prestigious awards for directing The French Connection (1972), also various accolades for directing The Exorcist the next year. He won awards at major International film festivals such as Cannes and Venice Biennale and had directed over a dozen operas in Italy and the US. Over the course of his four-decade-plus career, there are also about forty unrealized projects listed on wikipedia.

Friedkin’s experience and expertise of directing live theater, however, was spotty; a sole credit in 1981 for Duet for One at Royale Theatre on Broadway and starring heavyweights Max von Sydow and Anne Bancroft.

Curiously, Friedkin had already directed a feature film version of Pinter’s play in 1968. But here, at the Geffen, the aging director was out of his depth.

We learn that Friedkin doesn’t seem to have the first clue about how rehearsals should run and, worst of all, an apparent (and baffling) lack of understanding of the fundamentals of developing theatrical ideas and interpretation through rehearsal. Friedkin was obsessed with locking down the minutiae of stage business, Ullett explains incredulously.  

Nicely directed by Lisa James, the show runs about 60 minutes, with a question and answer session afterwards, and the run time is perfect. As enjoyable as it is, The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe feels like it’s pitched at a theater-savvy audience and the whole saga feels a little too dependent upon insider details. It helps if you’re familiar with the main players and can imagine each of them, although Ullett does a fantastic job of describing a vivid picture, and explaining who is who for those unfamiliar with formidable actor/author Steven Berkoff or Randall Arney (artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse from 1999-2017).

This is a fun and hilarious show – afterwards you might want to pose the burning question “Why didn’t the Geffen simply replace Friedkin?” because the answer is a good one!

Nick Ullett – photo by John Perrin Flynn.
Rogue Machine’s“The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe”
The Matrix

7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

(Street parking)

Opening at 5pm March 2, 2024


Saturday and Sundays – 5pm

Mondays and Fridays – 8pm

(No performances on Monday March 4 and 29)

Closing: April 8, 2024

For reservations call 855-585-5185 or

Tickets are $35 (Seniors $30 / Students $20)

Show4Less: Mar 8 ($10+), Mar 15 ($15+), Mar 22, 30 ($20+)

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.


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  • I’m grateful. I have been looking for information on this subject for a time, and this is the best resource I have discovered thus far.

    • The late great Friedkin was married to studio chief Sherry Lansing and they both donated generously to companies such as The Geffen.


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