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Stephen Cartmell, center, is surrounded by, from left, Tony Papenfuss, Katie Guentzel, Marty Ruben, Claudia Wilkens and Richard Ooms in Harold Pinter's “The Birthday Party” at the Jungle Theater.

Dan Norman,

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

What: By Harold Pinter. Directed by Joel Sass.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sun. Ends May 13.

Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.

Tickets: $10-$38. 612-822-7063 or jungletheater.com.

Absurd terrors of the everyday in 'The Birthday Party'

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE
  • Star Tribune
  • April 9, 2012 - 9:38 AM

For some folks, every day is a breath of fresh air -- a grand opportunity to be seized, cherished and fully experienced. For others, life's greatest fears arrive at daybreak; what new hell awaits, what ghosts will re-emerge to haunt each flinching hour of the clock?

Count Stanley Webber among the denizens of this latter world. A shapeless sad sack, Stan has retreated to land's end to escape his own existence. Silly man. Demons somehow always know the forwarding address of our greatest anxieties.

Harold Pinter gives us the case study of Stanley in "The Birthday Party," a play deliciously fraught between the bonhomie of an English seaside and the absurd terror that strikes at any moment. The Jungle Theater's new production, directed by Joel Sass, does not fully invest in the psychological subtext that elevates Pinter's first full-length work from a creaky chestnut to a bristling meditation on uncertainty.

Sass has set his production in a ramshackle boarding house defined by mismatched wallpaper and tacky linoleum flooring. Meg (Claudia Wilkens) schleps breakfast to her husband, Petey (Richard Ooms) and waits for Stanley (Stephen Cartmell) to arise from a sleepless night. Cartmell only sketches the contours of Stanley's dyspepsia. Is this grumpy Gus who shuffles awkwardly merely hung-over, in need of a kick in the pants? These are surface characteristics and never do we glimpse the fractured psyche of a bully, a charmer, a man frightened of himself.

Into this world step two strangers, Goldberg (Tony Papenfuss) and McCann (Martin Ruben). Papenfuss's Goldberg borrows a page from Joe Pesci, gliding about like a bellicose slug, a trail of slime in his wake. He jabs at Stanley, coddles Meg and abuses a local girl, Lulu (Katie Guentzel). Ruben is less certain, though his physical bulk makes McCann a worthy thug.

Sass's staging does not trust the naturalism that Pinter felt so essential to the play. Actors are aware they are acting, on some occasions playing to the crowd, and certain key scenes are performed almost as vaudeville rather than instruments of evisceration.

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.

  • Follow Royce on Twitter: @graydonroyce

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