Q: When is a birthday party a terrifying event?
A: When it's the subject of a Harold Pinter play.
Pinter's "The Birthday Party" - which runs through May 13 at the Jungle Theater - follows down and out boarder Stanley Webber. Two strangers arrive at his place of lodging, insisting it's his birthday, and they proceed to throw him a party.
According to the Jungle Theater, "After a few glasses of whiskey and a game of blindman's bluff, Stanley's innocuous birthday party turns into a totalitarian nightmare in this deeply political and timeless classic. One of the great black comedies of the 20th century, Harold Pinter's play is at once funny and menacing in its study of the individual's imperative need for resistance."
Critics, while they appear to enjoy the ambiguity and menace contained within this production, are decidedly mixed. Read on for excerpts of reviews, or click on the links to read them in full.
The cast of "The Birthday Party" by Harold Pinter, on stage at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis through May 13
Plays like this are more about the journey than the destination. Rather than clearly conveying a narrative from beginning to end, the objective of a successful staging of a play like "The Birthday Party" is for the audience to become sufficiently engaged with the characters so that they can connect the wide spaces between the dots on their own.
In this respect, [Director Joel] Sass' handsome production mostly succeeds.
It was dark and it was funny, yes, but it was also beautiful, eerie, ironic, chilling, surprising, and sad. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen, yet at the same time all-too familiar. Which, I suppose, is what everyone had been trying to tell me before: You can't really describe a Pinter play. You have to experience it.
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.
Although this Birthday Party doesn't quite pack the punch that one might hope for, it's an incredibly rich play that has much to offer our contemporary moment. After all, exploring the ways repression - in all of its myriad forms - barges into our private lives remains of the utmost importance.
Playing the work this way is not an unreasonable approach, if the aim is a comic aeration. And indeed, Pinter felt he was having a laugh with "The Birthday Party." But this is humor with a threat; our laughter shivers through tension, nervously fending off the ridiculous absurdity that could invade our own lives. Is this really us, we ask? If we stop to examine our lives, would they appear this banal, meaningless and vulnerable?
Those are the questions that Pinter intentionally left unanswered. In the Jungle production, they never feel asked.
Have you seen "The Birthday Party?" If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.