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THE BIRTHDAY PARTY Review – Many Unhappy Returns

By Patricia Simms

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If you were fortunate enough to have seen The Letters at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, you will understand what I mean about how one work of art informs another, in this case, Pinter’s The Birthday Party. In both plays, the palpable, overwhelming feeling of menacing doom is inescapable. What do the two plays have in common?




In both plays we are seeing victims of oppressive organizations—Communism? Fanatical religious organizations? Organized crime?—who now are trapped and terrified.  And we are seeing these characters in a carefully orchestrated way.  Because the stage sits “alley-style” between two banks of seats, so each side of the audience gets only their side of the story. If I were to see the play again and sat on the opposite side, would I have a different opinion of what “happened?”


Although this seems like it should be a simple, straightforward tale—it’s just a birthday party, after all—after a while everyone seems to be at least a hypocrite, delusional or a flat-out liar. It is so clearly unclear. As Artistic Director Martha Lavey expresses it,


“I think the extraordinary accomplishment in Mr. Pinter’s work is his mastery of language which is so precise and, at the same time, ambiguous and unlikely. We are constantly being asked to interpret the truth and be aware of how language both defines and obscures the real.”


Each of the actors inhabits their roles.  Every one of them.  Otherwise The Birthday Party would have been forgettable. There’s no simplistic plot or predictable outcome—ha!  The Birthday Party stays with you like a brain worm.


This great ensemble cast pulled this off:

 Ian Barford’s Stanley is creepy, and pitiful but seems to have a dark, ugly secret: this no sympathetic character or is he?


Francis Guinan’s Goldberg is slimy and unscrupulous despite his transparent polish—watch him wallow in his proper three-piece suit.

Marc Grapey’s McCann seems like that haunted, pursued pervert you read about yesterday. One opinion is that he’s a de-frocked priest.  What side of the stage was that person sitting on?

Moira Harris’s Meg is sweet but manipulative or is she?

John Mahoney’s Petey just might know more than he lets on. Is he an informant? Does he have something to hide, too?

Sophia Sinise’s Lulu couldn’t possibly be that naive. Or could she?


The theme for Steppenwolf’s 2012-13 season is “The Reckoning…what happens when the past comes knocking.” Think it’s a good fit?


Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member Austin Pendleton directs The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter in the Upstairs Theatre, newly reconfigured by scenic designer Walt Spangler who, by moving the stage to the center of the theater, allows the audience to feel engaged (complicit?) in the action/plot/conspiracy/…


The production team including Rachel Anne Healy (costume design), Keith Parham (lighting design) and Josh Schmidt (sound design and original music) created an indelible sense of place despite its ambiguous simplicity.



The Birthday Party runs until April 28 in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre


Tickets to The Birthday Party ($20 – $78) are currently on sale through Audience Services (1650 N Halsted St), 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org.


20 for $20: twenty $20 tickets are available for The Birthday Party through Audience Services beginning at 11am on the day of each performance (1pm for Sunday performances).


Rush Tickets: Rush Tickets are available one hour before each show.


Student Discounts: A limited number of $15 student tickets are available online using promo code “BIRTHDAY15”. Limit 2 tickets per student; must present a valid student ID for each ticket. For additional student discounts, visit steppenwolf.org/students.


Group Tickets: all groups of 10 or more receive a discounted rate for any performance throughout the season. For additional information, visit steppenwolf.org/groups.


Free post-show discussions are offered after every performance in the Subscription Season.


Steppenwolf is located near all forms of public transportation and is wheelchair accessible. Street and lot parking are available. Assistive listening devices and large-print programs are available for every performance.


Accessible Performances:

terpreted performance: March 31 at 7:30pm

Audio-described performance and touch tour: April 14 at 1:30pm (3pm performance)

Open captioned performance: April 27 at 3pm


Steppenwolf has the distinction of being the only theater to receive the National Medal of Arts, in addition to numerous other prestigious honors including an Illinois Arts Legend Award and nine Tony Awards. Martha Lavey is the Artistic Director and David Hawkanson is the Executive Director. Nora Daley is Chair of Steppenwolf’s Board of Trustees. For additional information, visit steppenwolf.org, facebook.com/steppenwolftheatre and twitter.com/steppenwolfthtr.


Production Photos: Michael Brosilow


Published on Feb 06, 2013

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