The Birthday Party at the Jungle Theater

Martin Ruben, Claudia Wilkens, Stephen Cartmell, Katie Guentzel and Tony Papenfuss in The Birthday Party. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Pinteresque.  The word has permanently entered the English lexicon.  It refers to something seemingly straightforward – a word, a gesture, a simple prop, a mere pause – that implies that we live atop a miasmic sea of horror and nastiness.  The crusty critics of the 50s and 60s called this subliminal reality “menace,” or “absurdity.”  Whatever it is, it bubbles up regularly, frighteningly and with (and this may be the great Nobel-winner Harold Pinter‘s grandest achievement) heady comedy.

The Birthday Party (at the Jungle Theater, through May 13) is, arguably, the most Pinteresque play in the Pinter canon.  Everyone in the play feels the terror.  Petey, Meg and Lulu try (and fail) to ignore it.  McCann and Goldberg use it for their nefarious (albeit vague) purposes.

And Stanley Weber, one of Pinter’s sweetest and most comic characters, tries to hide from it.  Stanley has retreated to a sordid seaside rooming house run by Meg and Petey.  He enjoys a “private income.”  Or maybe he makes a living as a pianist: “I played the piano everywhere.”  Later he says “I once gave a concert.  It was a great success.”  He plays Pinteresque games with Meg: “Stanley, you mustn’t say I’m ‘succulent’.”  “Oh, I’d rather have you than a cold in the head any day.”  Stanley uses the word “wheelbarrow” and Meg and Petey react, horrified.  Meg gives Stanley a toy drum.  He beats it frenetically.  The just-below-the-surface sea simmers.

And then McCann and Goldberg arrive.  These men are killers or, if not, they are certainly agents of real peril.  And they are looking for Stanley.  They stage a boozy birthday party for Stanley (who tries to wiggle out of it: “It’s not till next month”).  Stanley’s friend Lulu gets instantly soused and seduces (or so it seems) Goldberg (whose name is Nat; or Simey; or Benny).  Word games.  The slow ripping of newspaper.  Attempted murder, howling.  At the end they take the catatonically subdued Stanley away: to death?  To normalcy?  The play is quiet here and we can hear the sea of Pinteresque menace surging and crashing.

The danger with The Birthday Party would be to play the ominousness too overtly.  This wouldn’t work; the play would quickly become one overblown moment after another.  Director Joel Sass wisely avoids this and keeps things zipping comically along.  He has also had the great good sense to cast the delightful Claudia Wilkens, who plays Meg with sweet gusto and a surprising amount of sexual zeal.  Her work is nicely balanced by Richard Ooms (Wilkens’s real life husband) who plays Petey with lumbering charm.  Petey seems to be the play’s only genuinely happy character, and we adore him.  These two anchor the play satisfyingly.  As the putative assassins Tony Papenfuss and Martin Ruben energize the play admirably as they circle and harass our hapless hero.

Stephen Cartmell does bravura work as Stanley.  Cartmell prowls the stage, his robe billowing, scratching, scowling, stumbling but at the same time displaying scary simian energy.  Is he going to collapse?  Explode?  He brilliantly combines insomnia and mania.  This Stanley bristles with danger and is compulsively watchable.  Grand work; indeed, everyone thrills.

And, as always, the Jungle design is first rate.  Sass has designed the appropriately repulsive set, well lit by Barry Browning.  Costumes are by Andrea Gross; sound by C. Andrew Mayer.

All right, yes, a cynical 2012 play-goer (which I try not to be, not always successfully) might say, why see this play?  Why not go out onto Lyndale Avenue and see real perils, the grisly poverty (the result of a economic recession that refuses to end)?  Aren’t we dealing with horrifying environmental degradation?  Is The Birthday Party, with its hoary 1950s “theater of the absurd” provenance, still relevant?

I think it is – but you must take McCann and Goldberg seriously.  They are not funny theatrical devices; they represent something real.


For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

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