By Lynn Venhaus
An absurd comedy with heightened drama is an aural treat in Albion Theatre’s tension-filled, cryptic Harold Pinter classic, “The Birthday Party.”
In a small boarding house – “it’s on the list!” – at the English seaside, longtime lodger Stanley is tormented by a secret. When two mysterious strangers arrive, nothing seems to be what it appears to be.
Pinter’s unusual combination of humor and menace crystalizes the chaos at a bizarre birthday party, and lives will change that night and in the aftermath.
They talk to each other, but do they really listen?
A skilled and sharp ensemble is crisply directed by Suki Peters in the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre. Creating this odd world, they never skip a beat, measuring their pauses and growing a sense of dread while supplying both irrational behavior and their usual routines.
When they focus on the humor, they draw out nervous laughter from the audience. Playwright Pinter’s first work, from 1959, is seen through this creative team’s fresh eyes, and while edgy and powerful, is a model of restraint.
Pinter’s trademarks of confusing time and space, as well as making isolated characters ambiguous are noted here.
The extraordinary work of this cast in shaping their enigmatic portrayals elevates this experience. Instead of confusion about its peculiarities, we grasp their rhythms.
Robert Ashton is Petey, an amiable senior with a menial beach job who seems to tolerate his wife Meg’s daffiness. Teresa Doggett is delightfully flaky and giggly as an eccentric Meg, flitting about her domestic duties.
As the charming Boles’, Ashton and Doggett add authenticity with their native tongues amplifying their characters, and the remaining cast members, Midwesterners all, are flawless in delivering their United Kingdom dialects.
This sets the mood splendidly. Danger is looming, but what and why?
The couple’s boarder seems harmless, but then reveals a temper. In a flash, Ted Drury complicates Stanley’s erratic behavior. He says he was a piano player, which impresses Meg – but leaves things open for interpretation. He’s concealing his past, which is murky. Drury conveys simmering tension until he boils over.
An imposing Chuck Winning is a marvel when his threatening blowhard character Goldberg waltzes down memory lane or philosophizes about life, in a dominating, disturbing way.
His associate McCann, well-played by newcomer Nick Freed, isn’t as intimidating as Goldberg, but is frightening, nonetheless. A mob enforcer? Hitman? He has the look and the sinister tone, but also projects a world-weariness.
Ryan Lawson-Maeske has capably choreographed significant fight scenes, and one is an especially scary encounter.
A sunny Summer Baer has a small but pivotal role as Lulu, a light-hearted local girl who enjoys socializing. She’s an innocent who becomes targeted in untoward behavior.
Baer looks terrific in vintage outfits fashioned by costume designer Tracey Newcomb, who has captured the characters’ well in apparel. A special shout-out for Meg’s shiny party gown.
Set designer Brad Slavik’s shabby living and dining rooms accurately reflect the Boles’ economic status, with Majorie Williamson’s scenic design contributions, while Tony Anselmo’s lighting design punctuates the atmosphere perfectly.
Gwyneth Rausch has found appropriate props – that toy drum – to reflect the period, and sound designer Michael Musgrave-Perkins has enhanced the atmosphere with his choices.
“The Birthday Party” is meant to often seem illogical, but Albion’s inspired production is actually quite cohesive, benefitting from outstanding ensemble work and Peters’ distinct direction.
Albion Theatre presents “The Birthday Party” Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. from March 10 through March 26 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: albiontheatrestl.org.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.