Monday, September 24, 2012

Blowing Out the Candles: Jungle Theater's 'Birthday Party' features a knock-your-socks-off second act, but remains a mixed bag

Like the wacky un-birthday songs in Alice and Wonderland, The Birthday Partyturns the traditional notion of birthday festivities darkly upside down.
The show, at the Jungle Theater through May 13, details two days inside of a boarding house, where an unkempt and unmotivated piano player, Stanley, lives with the house’s owners, Petey and Meg. It doesn’t take long before two visitors, Goldberg and McCann, appear to fetch Stanley from the boardinghouse for some sinister purpose.
Clueless and kindhearted, Meg insists Goldberg and McCann stay for Stanley’s faux birthday party that night. That’s where everything goes horribly wrong. We never learn what exactly Stanley did to irk Goldberg, but it is clear that Goldberg and McCann’s presence terrifies Stanley enough to nudge him into insanity, placing all of the party’s guests in danger. As the show ends, Goldberg and McCann take a cleaner, calmer Stanly with them from the boardinghouse, and we are again left with the domestic tableaux of Petey and Meg at home.
The second act of this show, featuring the birthday party itself, is superb. With tightly woven dialogue, pitch-perfect blocking and a harrowing, David Lynch-ian ending, it’s a knock-your-socks-off rollercoaster of terrifying variation.
Unfortunately, the first and third acts never quite reach the same level of excitement. The first act is relatively hum drum, and the third act feels especially lifeless compared to the second act’s electricity. It should be noted, however, that this lag is more attributable to a meandering script than to shoddy execution.
The best performances in Birthday Party can be found in its ‘bit’ roles. Claudia Wilkens is wonderful as bumbling Meg, hitting all of her irritating yet comforting qualities with aplomb. Richard Ooms is similarly tickling as Petey, her staunch, cuckolded husband. As McCann, Martin Ruben exudes a homey mixture of loyal friendship and bar bouncer toughness.
Tony Papenfuss makes an average Goldberg, sinister yet relatively uninspired. Ditto for Stephen Cartmell as Stanley, who reaches a brilliant peak of insanity in the second act but is flat for most of the rest of the show. Katie Guentzel would make a much more convincing Lulu without her saucer-glazed stare.
Director Joel Sass clearly outdoes himself in his double role as set designer. Like Dial M for Murder before it, this set is a beautifully constructed, four-dimensional world, and it makes all the difference in selling the sullen script.
Be prepared for the long haul with this show, and bring some snacks – it stacks in at two intermissions and a run time of over two and a half hours.
Birthday Party is a mixed bag of favors. While it features several excellent Jungle features – wonderful character acting, a deeply layered set – it is not a must-see. Look for future shows for more inspired work.
+ The Birthday Party continues through May 13 at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls. For more information visit