My first memory of experiencing Harold Pinter was the 1983 film version of Betrayal with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge. I was completely fascinated by the story told backwards, long moments of people not speaking but somehow still shouting at each other, the steady pace of storytelling with no hurrying. When I first saw Betrayal on stage in a tiny venue which was even more engaging, I realized that Pinter would be one of my life-long theatrical loves. I’m lucky enough to live in a city where Pinter is done well, often enough, that I can periodically get my fix of exhilaration and disgust. And that’s how I felt after seeing The Jungle’s production of The Birthday Party – I wanted to talk about it for hours but only after I took a shower. Why?
In good Pinter, the real and surreal must exist side by side with one another. This should appear effortless even though I know it’s not. Pinter lives in the details – which is surprising when you consider how spare his language is. When I walked in to the Jungle's theater and saw that dreary world of the boarding house – the entire set looking as though it was covered with dust and disappointment – the first wave of sadness settled into my bones. The room is lived in but not really homey. It may have once been quite a lovely middle class rooming house, but no more – it’s tattered around the edges and as tired as Meg and Petey’s (Claudia Wilkens & Richard Ooms) conversation at the breakfast table. As the other characters enter – whether boarder, neighbor or mysterious strangers - there was an increasing tension caused by people not behaving as they “ought to” – an odd turn of phrase, the increasingly irritating repetitive phrases or questions. Reactions are either too intense or too lackadaisical. I begin to wonder if anyone on stage can actually hear one another at all. I’m glad for the occasional laugh, I hunger for some color other than brown – something isn’t quite right here but I can’t look away.
Making a point
Soon there are the signs of “The Pinter Point.” Pinter plays are never just about people – they are always about something bigger and nearly always have to do with individual freedoms and resisting the state or some form of authority. But there is nothing worse than a production that hits me over the head with a metaphor bat about standing up to repression – and the direction of Joel Sass and performances by all the actors involved never allowed that to happen. This show was about a damn disturbing birthday party, and Sass moves the story along at a perfect clip – with no one actor over-indulging in the famous Pinter pause but giving them just enough weight where I begin to shift a bit in my seat. You first care about the people – and the people make us care about the bigger story that is lurking in the corner. If that doesn’t come first, then the underlying warning becomes tiresome or lost altogether. "The Pinter Point" always makes me wonder “What if that was me?” And, really, all those characters are me – to some degree, no matter how threatening or innocent they are – whether I like admitting the resemblance or not.
Then, the tiny nagging fearfulness sets in as the play progresses. When the stage went to black during the culmination of the party, as the revelers veer out of control, it made me hold my breath a little too long and my heart started to pound. I realize that I’m awfully anxious about people who aren’t real. At intermission, some people look at one another with alarm and whisper noisily about leaving – and some do.
I know how the play proceeds, I know how it ends – but it doesn’t matter. I end up with the same thoughts running through my head: Are McCann and Goldberg (Martin Ruben & Tony Papenfuss) just guys who stop by for a room or are they really malevolent forces? Is Lulu (Katie Guentzel) just a naïve flirt or something more – is she in cahoots with McCann and Goldberg? And Stanley (Stephen Cartmell) . . . How did he get there? Why doesn’t he fight back? Does he honestly have something to hide or not? Can Petey help him – if so, why doesn’t he? And how many times during the evening do I change my answers?
Pinter really is not made for an evening of being entertained – it’s made for intense conversations during the car ride home or over a glass of wine. It’s made to shake up your brain and assumptions. It’s not weird for the sake of being weird (that’s bad Pinter); it’s weird because we live in a world of contradictions and injustices that will beat people down until we become complacent and no longer fight back– and Pinter doesn’t want us to forget how easily we can be on either side of that equation. The Jungle’s production of The Birthday Party was not an evening of being distracted from my job or household tasks; it is was an evening of being taken to dark places that make me nervous – and then having Pinter and the artists showing me how to find my way out.