Review: “The Birthday Party”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through April 28
Tickets: $20-$78
Phone: 312-335-1650

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The first — and best — production of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” I ever saw was at Court Theatre in 1978, in what was then the New Theatre in Mandel Hall. It was co-directed by Nicholas Rudall, who also played Goldberg, one of the two mysterious men who show up at the seaside home of Petey and Meg in pursuit of their boarder, Stanley, for crimes unknown. With the massive Bradley Mott as his cohort McCann, Rudall’s Goldberg was so menacing beneath the genial surface that the terrorized Stanley was reduced to a quivering mess, and the audience felt that a similar threat could be lurking anywhere, anytime.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s version of Pinter’s first full-length play, which originally was staged in 1958, is nothing like that. Director Austin Pendleton seems less interested in creating an atmosphere of impending doom than he is in illuminating the shifting dynamics among characters who continually contradict themselves (and each other) and can’t be certain of anything.

This approach yields some interesting insights and interpretations but reduces the overall impact of “The Birthday Party.” Even the decision to bring the audience closer to the action by reconfiguring the theater with rows of seats on either side of the platform stage is a double-edged sword. Walt Spangler’s scenic design features a dining room table that’s a potent symbol but practically limits the blocking to sitting at or circling around it, and observing fellow patrons across the room can be distracting. The openness also raises a question: Why doesn’t Stanley, played by the sizable Ian Barford, simply leave when Marc Grapey’s smaller McCann tries to block his way.

Actually, I found Barford’s performance problematic. The play’s power depends at least partly on our empathizing — and perhaps identifying — with this ostensibly ordinary, if neurotic, man who may or may not have been a world-traveling pianist and has been living at what may or may not be a boarding house for about a year, apparently hiding from someone or something, which as far as we can tell turns out to be Goldberg, McCann and the “organization“ they represent.

The problem is that this Stanley is such an angry, nasty piece of work that I had no sympathy for him. His meanness initially shows in the way he treats Meg, verbally abusing the poor middle-aged woman who cares for him; exchanges that might have been taken as affectionate sparring don’t sound that way. When Goldberg and McCann turn the tables with an absurdist interrogation worthy of a film noir, it almost seems fair. And Stanley’s reaction — a retreat into silence followed later by a violent outburst, ending in what comes across as post-torture resignation as he’s led quietly away — doesn’t inspire much emotion, either. Moira Harris, an ensemble member returning to Steppenwolf’s stage for the first time since 1998, portrays Meg as mentally challenged, vague and clueless as to what’s going on around her. At the party she’s planned for what may or may not be Stanley’s birthday, she’s preoccupied by her dress, charmed by Goldberg’s compliments and oblivious to Stanley’s torment. Pendleton’s direction also helps suggest her feelings for the boarder who may or may not be her son go beyond maternal, making her jealous of the neighbor, Lulu (Sophia Sinese, Harris’s daughter with Gary Sinese), who may or may not be Stanley’s girlfriend and, in her girlish outfits by Rachel Anne Healy, has a Lolita-like quality, rather than being a tart as in some productions.

Meg’s interaction with her husband, Petey, the deck-chair attendant played to a “t” by John Mahoney, humorously captures the banality of conversations between people who’ve been married for a long time, especially in the opening scene. But rather than betraying the irritation that a man might feel at his wife’s repetition of minutiae as he tries to read the paper, Mahoney’s Petey subtly displays patience and understanding, qualities that extend to his grasp of what’s happening to Stanley. His final words to his hapless boarder, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do,” also convey his sense of helplessness, the closest this show comes to being moving, at least for me.

As to the mysterious strangers, Francis Guinan gives a virtuoso performance as the multifaceted Goldberg, but he’s neither as frightening nor as fully in control as I would expect. At the actual birthday party, he embarrasses himself as much as he humiliates Stanley, and he’s the one who has a near meltdown later on. Grapey provides a good foil as his thuggish henchman, McCann, and their troubled relationship adds some of the tension that‘s missing elsewhere.

While I can appreciate the spin Pendleton is trying to put on “The Birthday Party,” emphasizing uncertainty rather than fear, it doesn’t really work for me – though it might for you.

Of Special Note:

Chicago Opera Theater (COT) is heading into unfamiliar territory with its second production under new General Director Andreas Mitisek. Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer’s “Maria De Buenos Aires,” called a “tango operita” by its creators when it premiered in 1968, is an exciting collaboration between COT and Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater. Mitisek, the director, conductor and production designer, sets the action during Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983) when more than 30,000 people “disappeared” and many more were tortured and abused.
“Maria De Buenos Aires” is at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance for three more performances only: tonight, April 26, and April 28. For tickets ($35-$125), call 312-704-8414.