The first thing you have to keep in mind when examining Harold Pinter's work, especially an early work like The Birthday Party, is that you are never going to learn everything about the character's backgrounds, conflicts, or fears. Unlike modern-day entertainments, where a shot of the Washington Monument is often paired with a helpful "Washington D.C." subtitle, Pinter makes the audience work.
Yet when the play, production, and audience are all working together, as in the Jungle's staging of Pinter's first full-length work, the missing information isn't about frustration, but instead adds a thrilling depth to the evening. Not knowing everything means we have to fill in the holes on our own, and that can be so much more frightening than what the playwright — even one as dark and savage as this Nobel Prize winner — can provide.
Director Joel Sass and the talented six-member cast also remind us that the absurd can be very funny, even if danger lurks around every seemingly innocent remark.
When it premiered in London in 1958, The Birthday Party was far from a sensation, playing for a week before closing. However, a posthumous rave review kept the play's reputation alive, and in the half-century since, it has been recognized as a prime example of the "comedies of menace" that the playwright specialized in during his first decade.
Here the menace is visited upon Stanley, a slobbish resident of a rundown boardinghouse on the English seaside. Stanley's past is left largely blank — there are hints that he may have been a musician before settling into the boardinghouse — and he is content to shuffle about the house. He is doted on by the landlady, Meg, and it seems that his neighbor Lulu may fancy him.
The routine doesn't last long, as a pair of mysterious, well-dressed men arrive at the door. They call themselves Goldberg and McCann, but there are indications that they have other identities. They know what Stanley has done, and it is time for him to pay the piper. The what and the who are left unidentified, leaving an overwhelming sense of dread. The two aren't just interested in taking Stanley away, they want to make him squirm as well.
That comes in the titular event (part of the irony is that it isn't actually Stanley's birthday), which comes with copious amounts of alcohol, a bit of dancing, some stranger-danger flirting from Goldberg to Lulu, and a game of blind man's buff that is the thing of theater legend.
Of course, anyone who has suffered through a bad Pinter production knows it isn't just about the script but about what the actors do. The company deeply understands what is needed here, using expert timing to bring out the humor and the fear that often exist in the same scene. As Goldberg and McCann, Tony Papenfuss and Martin Ruben are as tight as a traditional English double comedy act. Papenfuss is both slick and enraged, verbally beating Stanley. Ruben is imposing physically, and his character adds to the ever-present fear.
Between these two and Stanley are the landlords and Lulu. Husband and wife Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkens fully inhabit Petey and Meg, from their calcified morning routine (centered on a bowl of cornflakes and talk about the newspaper) to Meg's definite attraction for Stanley. Ooms brings some terrific humanity to Petey, who, among all the characters, seems to have a clear idea of what is going on and acts as if this isn't the first time he's seen this kind of persecution.
That's the key for Stanley and for Stephen Cartmell's performance. The character appears to be haunted before he even knows that Goldberg and McCann are coming to take him away. The nature of that is never made explicit; it could be sexual or political or some other kind of social transgression. Cartmell is never allowed to fully reveal his character, but he gives us tantalizing hints of the chaos and rage hiding just beneath the surface in the first two acts, a fire that is completely extinguished by the play's final moments.
Director Sass and the company keep a light touch on the material, giving the comedy a chance to ring out and, in turn, heightening the horrors when they come. The set (by Sass) and costume designs (Andrea M. Gross) have exactly the right shabby vibe, looking as exhausted as post-war Britain.
Pinter was writing at a time when World War II was just over a decade in the past, the anti-communist witch hunts were in full effect, and the forces of morality were trying to keep everyday human nature at bay. Change a few details, and you have the world in 2012. That's how a work endures.