The Best Worst Birthday Party Ever

There are a couple things you need to know before you go see a Harold Pinter play. First, don’t expect it to make sense. Second, just because the play ends doesn’t mean there’s a conclusion. And lastly, you’re going to squirm.

I’m not sure if knowing these things would have changed my experience with The Birthday Party at Jungle Theater, but it definitely wouldn’t have hurt. I’d never seen a Pinter before Saturday, and all I’d heard from people was, “Oh, Pinter. It’s going to be dark—dark, but funny. You know?”

I didn’t know, but I soon found out. 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.

Before you go (which you should), let me expand on those first three tips I mentioned before, which I’ll lovingly call my “Pinter Pointers.” Hopefully they’ll help you better understand (as much as you can) and appreciate this clever play.

1. Don’t Expect it to Make Sense

Michal Daniel

Unlike most shows, which follow a logical, familiar storyline, The Birthday Party laughs in the face of “normal.” The whole show takes place in the common room of the boarding house of Petey (Richard Ooms) and Meg (Claudia Wilkens). They aren’t your typical couple: Meg towers over Richard and doesn’t seem the bit annoyed at his tendency to ignore her every word (of which there are many). Joel Sass, who both directed and designed the set, took careful measures to make the place look dingy and cluttered—a nicely eerie-yet-familiar touch.

The couple has been housing one tenant, Stanley (Stephen Cartmell), for a year. Stanley’s age is ambiguous, as is why he’s been allowed to stay for so long. Meg treats him both as a son and former lover, an uncomfortable combination to be sure (see Pinter Pointer #3). According to Meg, it’s Stanley’s birthday, and she wants to do something special for him. When two strangers arrive looking for a room, they suggest throwing Stanley a party. Why Goldberg (Tony Papenfuss) and McCann (Martin Ruben) would want to throw a stranger a party is unclear—unless Stanley isn’t a stranger after all.

Throw the overly flirtatious neighbor girl Lulu (Katie Guentzel) into the mix, and you get a group of people that not only doesn’t make sense, but shouldn’t make sense. And yet, in some weird and inexplicable way, it kind of does.

Credit for this largely goes to the actors, whose powerful performances keep the show from crossing over into the too-strange-to-want-to-watch zone. Wilkens especially deserves kudos for her outstanding performance as Meg. This is the second time she’s played the character, and while I didn’t see the first incarnation (in 1987 at Guthrie Theater), I can’t imagine it being any more genuine or painfully honest as this. She and Ooms have a natural chemistry (they’re married in real life) that grants this strange ensemble a sense of realism. Cartmell plays the paranoid, frantic Stanley to a tee, creating a character that simultaneously infuriates you while making you sympathize with him. Papenfuss and Ruben form the strange duo of Goldberg and McCann and provide the show with much of its mystery and comedy. And Guentzel’s Lulu is somehow knowing and innocent, obnoxious and likeable. Again, none of the characters should logically work with the others, and yet they do. Don’t expect it to make sense.

2. Just Because the Play Ends, Doesn’t Mean There’s a Conclusion

Part of what makes psychological thrillers scary is their lack of explanation. This is a concept Pinter uses to the utmost in a few ways. We don’t know why there are no other boarders at Meg and Petey’s. We don’t know what happened to make Stanley quit his former life as a supposedly prolific pianist. We don’t know where Goldberg and McCann came from, how they know Stanley, or why their presence makes Stanley so profoundly uneasy. We just don’t know. My advice: Go into the play knowing you won’t get a clean conclusion and enjoy the “choose your own ending” vibe of the ordeal. It’s not often we get to take liberties with our imaginations, so have fun.

3. You’re Going to Squirm

Pinter’s first full-length play, The Birthday Party, is often called a “comedy of menace.” It messes with you. It teases you. It makes you laugh, then gasp. It takes an apparently normal, innocent situation and, through reasons that are inexplicable and unclear, makes it feel threatening and obscure. This lack of clarity is uncomfortable, no doubt, but it’s also somehow freeing—freeing in an ironic way that makes as little sense as the show.

It’s not often that a show makes you question reality and think as hard as The Birthday Party does. At first, this frustrated and confused me, but by the second intermission I was more intrigued by what was to come next than upset about what had happened. It’s the kind of play that prompts English majors to write lengthy thesis papers and reread and overanalyze every inch of text they’ve every studied. It’s a thinker, and it’s well worth your time to see—maybe even twice.

The Birthday Party
Through May 13
Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-822-7063