Theater Review - The Birthday Party

Don Hall, Angry White Guy in Chicago Blog

"I've been hearing good things about the Signal folks for some time and when I heard they were doing a revival of Pinter's first full-length play (one of my favorites, in the top five at least) I managed to squeeze in on the next-to-last-night of their acclaimed production.

For the uninitiated, The Birthday Party is a simple construct: Petey (a deck chair watchman on a pier) and his looney wife Meg have one boarder in their home, Stanley. A sullen, morose character, Stanley spends his days in bed and rarely bathes. Meg treats him as if he is her son and the trio make a strange little dysfunctional family until two mobsters named Goldberg and McCann arrive and all that was is revealed to be false. Stanley is on the run and has been discovered for some betrayal and Goldberg and McCann are there to provide some consequence. Based on Meg's decision that it is Stanley's birthday (it isn't), the mobsters throw him a party that includes drinking, verbal interrogation games, dancing (by a drunken Meg), debauchery, a game of Blind Man's Bluff, and madness.

Sounds like fun, huh?

Much hay has been made about the infamous "Pinter Pause" and the result is often a dampening of both the comedy and the menace of his work. Often, productions of Pinter's plays settle for a slow build of tension and sense of dread but fail to provide the necessary energy to allow the language and action to flower into big laughs and awkward silences. For "comedy of menace" to function properly there needs to be a light switch between what is apparently comical and nearly slapstick in the verbal incongruities written spoiled by extreme violence of emotion creating a sort of Stockholm Syndrome effect upon the audience.

For the most part, Snook's capable direction and strong cast accomplish much in the way of creating this effect. Philip Winston (as McCann) is both funny and gives off a sense of menace with every line and every motion - it is an extraordinary performance. Joseph Stearns (Stanley) likewise provides moments of genuinely funny context and infuses the whole play with a sense of dread. The production feels right - Melania Lancy's set is detailed and complete (she provides a genuine sense that there is an outside world beyond the subtlely cracking walls of the boarding house) and the low ceilings and pillars in he remarkable Chopin Theatre Downstairs space adds to the feeling of claustrophobia and unease necessary.

In fact, there is so much that works in this production that it surprised me how much it ended up feeling a bit...intellectual. Granted, the piece was entertaining and the performances (aside from the wildly varying misuse of accents throughout - only Leah Nuetzel as Lulu, Winston and Stearns were consistent and believably British and Irish) were solid and smartly played. Will Shutz (Goldberg) is generally very, very good in all senses but one - he was never a threatening enough presence to create the menacing undercurrent of the text - not for a second did I buy that he was capable of any violence at all.

Which brings it full circle to the acceptance of a slower pace and a replacement of sincere menace with solemnity and tension-filled dread. There are moments in The Birthday Party that call for extreme emotional violence - rage, venom, and a sense that physical violence is eminent. Snook allows for none of these moments to flourish including a slow, dancey sort of fighting in the one true moment of onstage violence instead of the ball's out, sloppy, slapdash nature of authentic violence that must be present to underscore the banality of the situation itself. Without these explosions, the verbal parrying seems well written poetry without a heartbeat.

On a more positive sidenote, let me say that the Chopin Theatre is one fucking cool place. You walk in the door and it feels like a place that theater is supposed to happen in and that it is important that it happen in that building. Zygmunt Dyrkacz and Lela Headd have created the only venue in town that makes me feel that Theater is a Big Deal - from the salon-like atmosphere of the multiple lobby areas, decorated and designed with the touch and eye of an artist to the simple non-commercial, vaguely European tastes at the small cafe-ish concessions bar, to the comfortable stuffed chairs arranged for comfort and observation - every time I go there I expect to see Brecht, Pinter, and Stoppard drinking Turkish coffee and exchanging war stories of productions past.

This was my first Signal show and it won't be my last. These cats show promise and integrity and a focus on creating excellent work. For most of the theatergoing audience, the restraint of extremes is likely the exact correct choice to make. For myself, I like a little bit more grain alcohol in my birthday punch".