“The Birthday Party” was Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter’s first full-length play, and its 1958 London début left audiences and critics scratching their heads. Brimming with contradictions, non sequiturs and cross-talk, “The Birthday Party” — like the Pinter plays that would follow — is a tough nut to crack. My advice: don’t attempt to crack that nut, to decode what the play means. Better simply to experience it, to feel beneath the lobbed bits of dialog for whatever emotion resonates most deeply. The drama’s current incarnation at Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Upstairs Theatre allows theatergoers to do just that, thanks to a crack cast and astute direction by ensemble member Austin Pendleton.
Adding to the production’s accessibility is an alley configuration (set design by Walt Spangler), with the rectangular stage in the middle and audience members seated close to the action on opposites sides of the effective set, the dining room of a modest boarding house in a seaside English town. The room looks normal enough, but looks, especially Pinteresque looks, can be deceiving. This boarding house has a sole boarder.
That boarder is Stanley (ensemble member Ian Barford), an unemployed pianist with no visible means of support who mostly keeps to his room. Hiding from gangsters? Going through a mental breakdown? Witness protection program? With Pinter, the possibilities are endlessly sinister.
The older couple who run the boarding house — Meg and Petey, whose day job is renting out deck chairs at the seashore — take a parental interest in Stanley. Motherly Meg (Moira Harris, a member of the original ensemble, returning to Steppenwolf after many years away) wakes Stanley to summon him to a breakfast of cornflakes, fried bread and tea that Stanley, unshaven and still in his pajamas, declares undrinkable — before pouring himself another cup. Petey (John Mahoney, a veteran of more than 30 Steppenwolf productions in between film and TV work) appears at the beginning and end of the play, but like a father who has to be at work, misses the birthday party for Stanley at the center of the play — although Stanley insists it’s not his birthday. At the end Petey reclaims his paternal role, telling his boarder, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.”
“Them” is the mysterious twosome of Goldberg (ensemble member Francis Guinan) and McCann (Marc Grapey), who show up at the boarding house to rent a room for the night — or perhaps to reclaim Stanley as a member of some nefarious organization or to haul him away to a mental institution; again, with Pinter, we’ll never know for sure.
The final role is that of a young neighbor named Lulu, played by Sophia Sinise in her début at Steppenwolf. Sophia Sinise shares the stage with her mother, Moira Harris, married to Steppenwolf founding member Gary Sinese.
What the director and this experienced cast bring to Pinter is a willingness to trust that the dialogue, however little sense some of it makes, can be a vehicle for communicating emotions beyond words. When the non sequiturs fly fast and furious — Goldberg replies to Lulu’s “I trust you” with “Gesundheit!” — decoding the dialog does not seem as profitable as simply listening to how it is spoken. With Pinter, the tone can be wickedly funny one minute and menacing the next, sometimes alternating rapidly, as when a party game of blind man’s buff quickly degenerates into violence.
One sign that Pendleton’s strategy is working is that the production never seems to flag but holds the audience’s attention no matter how inscrutable the dialog. Pinter may not be for everyone — and don’t come to this birthday party expecting sweetly iced cake — but Steppenwolf’s production will give you access and let you decide for yourself.
“The Birthday Party”
The Upstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago
Through April 28, 2013
Tickets $20 – $78; (312) 335-1650 or Steppenwolf.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow