"The Birthday Party" by Harold Pinter goes on about seemingly mundane details while hinting at bigger, darker themes.
Star Tribune critic Mike Steele stated it with such tart acuity. Reviewing a Guthrie production of "The Birthday Party," Steele wrote about the subtext of Harold Pinter's mundane dialogue:
"When Meg...plops cornflakes in front of her semicomatose husband, Petey, and asks, 'Are they nice?' and he says, without looking up, 'Very nice,' we're less into dialogue than daily ritual. 'The Birthday Party' isn't about cornflakes, and neither is the scene."
Steele's comment and Pinter's play -- which has not had a major professional staging in the Twin Cities since 1986 -- reveal the inadequacy of words as vessels of truth. Pinter dresses up banality to reveal something far more honest: character and intention.
"He himself said, 'What happens in my plays is realistic, although what I am doing is not realism,'" said Joel Sass, who is directing "The Birthday Party" at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. It opens Friday with a cast that includes Claudia Wilkens (who was in the Guthrie production), Stephen Cartmell, Tony Papenfuss and Martin Ruben.
Briefly, in "The Birthday Party," two mysterious gentlemen arrive at a lodging house and say that they want to celebrate the birthday of the only lodger there -- Stanley. But it's not Stanley's birthday, and as the action proceeds, the ominous intent of the strangers becomes evident. If the absurd and threatening symbolism raises for you images of Kafka or George Orwell, you are on the right track.
"I was rereading Kafka's 'The Trial,' and there are so many similarities between that story," Sass said. "All those metaphorical expressions of authoritarianism, whether that be inside a family, a village, the state or the church."
Pinter's play shared the plight of many important absurdist 1950s works: It nearly died in the birthing room. Critics could make neither heads nor tails out of the elliptical language, the odd characters and the odder situations. It was not until after the show actually closed on a Saturday that a rave in the Sunday Times caused producers to reconsider. Its mix of an unknowable menace, shifting truth and unreliable clues put audiences on edge.
Michael Billington, critic at the Guardian, wrote about the play when it was revived in 2008, the 50th anniversary of that fateful first production:
"I am reminded of a remark made by the German director Peter Zadek that what he enjoys in Pinter is 'the mix of Agatha Christie and Kafka.'
"And 'The Birthday Party's' current director, David Farr, makes a similar point when he says that Pinter 'blends existential modernism with British realism and pragmatism.'"
Keep it dancing
Sass has had his eye on the "earlier Pinters," such as "The Birthday Party." These are works rich with comic rhythms and characters who appear to be stepping through their normal days.
"These early plays don't succeed well if the veneer of alienation and oddness and that external or existential dread is too heavily lacquered on," Sass said. "Everything needs to arrive out of real behaviors and conversations."
Sass' only exposure to "The Birthday Party" has come in bad BBC made-for-television treatments, which commit the very sins of which he speaks. Ponderous and full of exaggerated, heavy stares, the productions seem to demand a somber reverence, he said.
"Unless it has a certain vivacity of life to it, the moments that really do land with an unspecified but palpable sinister feeling don't land in opposition to anything," he said.
Sass also finds a resonance between "The Birthday Party" and two works by Conor McPherson ("Shining City" and "The Seafarer") that he directed at the Jungle. Both plays share Pinter's fascination with the dark subconscious -- a realm of instinct and inchoate motivation that exists on a deeper level than the intellect.
"They are responding to unanalyzed and involuntary impulses to hunt or invade or oppress each other," he said.
Another similarity, of course, is the heightened language. McPherson has not reached the level of Pinter ("Pinteresque"), but the specificity of each word and the script's phrasing require an exactitude.
"You can feel it in the room if it's not said exactly the way he wrote it," Sass said. "There are a trillion ways to deliver that line, but it only has one shape, the order of the words that he put on the page."