The Birthday Party
Signal Ensemble

Critic's Pick - TimeOut Chicago 8/7/08
Signal Ensemble presents Noble Prize Winner Harold Pinter's first full length play.

07/26/08 - 08/30/08

Preview 7/26-27 8p; Open 7/28 8p; Th-Sa 8p; Su 3p

This Week in Theater - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 7/25/08

The Birthday Party: Fresh from its triumphs at the Jeff Awards, the Signal Ensemble Theatre presents a 50th anniversary production of the menacing Harold Pinter classic. Aaron Snook directs. Through Aug. 30 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.; $15-$20, 773-278-1500.

The Birthday Party' celebrates a perfect moment – Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times 8/7/08

“It is not at all difficult to see why director Aaron Snook and the Signal Ensemble Theatre decided to stage a revival of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” at this particular moment.

To begin with, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the play’s debut in London (though the initially negative critical response to this early drama nearly drove the actor-writer into a different line of work). Far more to the point, this play is an exploration of intimidation — whether by extreme forms of psychological torment (interrogation without the possibility of response, language as a piercing tool of menace and possible distortion), or the more predictable techniques of blunt brute force. And for those who admire Pinter’s world view — he has railed against human rights abuses for decades, and in recent years has aimed his most savage remarks at U.S. policies — “The Birthday Party” serves as an ideal allegory.

Whether or not you find Pinter’s current political stance problematic in many ways, this play continues to grab hold of the imagination. And Snook and his precision-tuned cast of six handles its very tricky landscape with exceptional finesse, illuminating several passages that even the most devoted Pinter fan might have missed in earlier productions. The actors skillfully conjure the banality (or willed blindness) of their characters, as well as their more manipulative and vicious aspects. And under Snook’s direction, the cast taps into the striking poetry and deftly expressive music of Pinter’s writing.

The backdrop for this episode of terror is a charmingly mundane little boarding house in an English seacoast town. The middle-aged but still flirty proprietor, Meg (Mary O’Dowd), oversees the meals, while her decent but impotent husband, Petey (Vincent L. Lonergan), works as a deck-chair attendant. Their sole, year-long boarder is a rather meek, bespectacled, depressive fellow, Stanley (Joseph Stearns), a former concert and club pianist who clearly is on the run from something.

As it turns out, Stanley can’t hide forever. And he has now been hunted down by a pair of thuggish types — Goldberg (Will Schutz), the bombastic charmer, and his younger henchman, McCann (Philip Winston) — who insist on throwing Stanley a party he will not forget. What begins as a forced little celebration — complete with whiskey, tough-guy threats, blind man’s bluff games, drunken confessions and the seduction of a young, if not entirely innocent neighbor, Lulu (Leah Nuetzel) — ends far more demonically. The tone of musical hall farce cedes literally overnight, to something far more shattering.

The design team — Melania Lacey (set), Julie E. Ballard (lights), Elsa Hiltner (costumes) and sound (Anthony Ingram) — has done impeccable work. And as Pinter reminds us, terrible things can happen inside a doll-house world”.

AV Club - The Onion, 7/31/08

"Those longing for a creepty, sickly dread in their live-theater experience should consider this play by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter. Pinter's first full-length work is set in a seaside boarding house in England, where a retired pianist named Stanley lives a strange, quiet life until two guys claiming to know him are convinced they must celebrate his birthday..or else. Never overtly explaining what exactly is going on, Pinter only lets the audience know that something's not quite right. Ensemble member Aaron Snook directs, Joseph Stearns stars as the ppor, beleaguered Stanley and Will Schutz and Philip Winston play his festive tormentors". Critic’s Pick – Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago 8/7/08

“Harold Pinter’s been ensconced as a master playwright for so long it’s easy to forget just how tortuous his early plays can be. Less absurdist than ambiguous, they’re works in which the protagonists are as unreliable as the antagonists, and the subject of a conflict is less important than the conflict itself.

The Birthday Party, Pinter’s first full-length play, amply demonstrates the style that would be famously (and repeatedly) called “comedy of menace.” Stanley, ostensibly a lapsed concert pianist, is a boarder in the seaside home of an older couple, the genial Petey and dotty Meg; sleeping all the time and rarely venturing outdoors, Stanley appears to be hiding from something. That something arrives in the form of Goldberg and McCann, a pair of genteel thugs who’ve tracked Stanley down, though to what end and on whose behalf remain unknown; their own provenance is as suspect as Stanley’s.

Director Snook’s well-managed, disturbingly funny revival conveys the proper sense of benighted dread, thanks in large part to Stearns, who makes clear the oppressive weight of Stanley’s burden without the benefit of being able to name it. Equally but much more oddly impressive is O’Dowd as the matron of the house; whether attempting to seduce Stanley over cornflakes or displaying an irrational fear of wheelbarrows (or is it perfectly rational—in this world, who can tell?), she maintains a childlike certitude. Meg arguably fares better than Stanley, who cracks not under the hooligans’ thumbs, but their words. In a slippery age when it’s argued that torture isn’t torture, that’s chillingly relatable.

Signal Ensemble presents Noble Prize Winner Harold Pinter's first full length play.

Stanley Webber, a retired pianist, is leading a quiet life in a seaside boarding house until two strangers roll into town.

Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter seems to be on everyone’s minds in these politically charged days, from Mary Arrchie’s acclaimed revival of ‘The Caretaker’ to the broadway blockbuster revival of ‘The Homecoming.’

Experience how it all began as Signal Ensemble brings Pinter’s first full-length play, ‘The Birthday Party,’ to the Chopin stage.

Harold Pinter

Aaron Snook

Vincent Lonergan, Joseph Stearns, Philip Winston, Mary O’Dowd, Leah Nuetzel and Will Schutz

Stephanie Ehemann* (Stage Manager), Anthony Ingram* (Sound Design), Melania Lancy† (Scenic Design), Elise Kauzlaric (Dialect Coach), Elsa Hiltner (Costume Design), Sue Ragusa (Lighting Design), and Cassie Soliday (Properties Design).

Tags: Theater, Old Europe, 2008