The Birthday Party
Although "The Birthday Party," one of Harold Pinter’s first full-length plays, met with a dismal critical response in 1958, it has since become one of the playwright’s most-performed works. Its edges are undeniably rough, but much of the play’s appeal is in that very lack of polish and the head-on confrontation of themes that Pinter explores throughout his body of work.
Steppenwolf’s relentlessly intimate staging of the play in its reconfigured upstairs theater captures the raw fury that keeps companies and audiences coming back to this early work.
The whole of the play unfolds in the dining room of Meg and Petey’s seaside boarding house, created by director Austin Pendleton and scenic designer Walt Spangler at the exact center of the the space with nothing more than a dining room set, a sideboard three steps down at one end of the stage and a coat rack at the other. The staging results in the audience struggling with odd sight lines and an imperfect visual on the proceedings that effectively mimics the disorienting cadences of Pinter’s dialogue.
The plot, such as it is, centers around the disruption of both the rhythms of daily life for Meg and Petey and life in general for Stanley, their long-time boarder. The sense of menace that accompanies the news that two gentlemen are looking to stay at the boarding house grows, culminating in Stanley’s screaming breakdown to draw the curtain on the birthday party Meg has planned for him.
In the third act, Stanley enters in full morning dress, his eyes bloodied from a struggle over his glasses, and departs with the gentlemen as Petey cries after them "Don’t let them tell you what to do!" -- a line Pinter once claimed to be the most important he’d ever written.
With a plot about nothing and dialogue that wildly contradicts itself, so that the audience is unsure of even the most basic facts about the characters, "The Birthday Party" could be about almost anything, yet all the plays interactions come back to themes of individual agency authoritarianism, and the ways in which history, personal and political, is imposed on us, and the ways in which we resist, however ineffectually, in the course of living our lives.
In a post-show discussion, Steppenwolf’s artistic director Martha Lavey noted that the play is heavy with sexual tension and one reading of it is Oedipal. But Pinter himself and Pendleton in this production dig deeper into Greek tragedy than just the psychosexual. In trying to subvert prophecies of who they will become and what will happen, the characters themselves make those very prophecies come to pass.
Most of the interaction in the course of the play occurs in dyads. Even in the climactic scene at the party, exchanges go two-by-two and characters often seem to be ignorant of those with whom they are not interacting at the moment.
Just as space is critical in Pinter’s dialogue, separation becomes as important as interchange and characters almost seem to be different aspects of a single persona at different points in time, a theme that’s beautifully supported by Rachel Anne Healy’s period costumes.
This theme plays out most effectively between Moira Harris’s Meg and her real-life daughter Sophia Sinise as Lulu. Meg’s dialogue is relentlessly twittering and brightly social. Harris injects the performance with just the right touch of madness.
Sinise’s strategy as Lulu took a bit longer to unfold. Her early scene opposite Stanley and during the course of the birthday party are, necessarily, more purely about reaction than action. But in the third act, she stands tall and resists when Goldberg, the older of the two sinister gentlemen, attempts to spin a one-dimensional version of all women. The performance in that moment reads like a beautiful extension of Harris’s and it feels like a kind of triumph for both Meg and Lulu.
As Stanley, Ian Barford’s performance starts out broad. His early scenes with Meg are almost something out of "Fawlty Towers," but the madness and danger are always there underneath. Stanley’s resistance comes in his refusal to walk in the world at all.
Just as Meg and Lulu come to look like mirror images of one another, over the course of three acts, as Barford retreats and retreats, Stanley seems to be an alternate version of the genial, if dismissive and disengaged, Petey, played by the amazing John Mahoney.
McCann and Goldberg, the two sinister gentlemen played by Marc Grapey and Francis Guinan, respectively, are seemingly a more straightforward pair. Goldberg is the suit and the spokesman, constantly narrating and changing the names, identities, and the facts in the stories he tells.
McCann is the stereotypical Irish tough who literally makes things happen, moving things and people around the stage. As with Stanley, Pinter’s dialogue gives the actors pure stereotype as a point of entry. Grapey and Guinan explode the stereotypes, though, and by the end of the play, though the characters have seemingly accomplished their "mission," no one seems certain what that or anything that has transpired might mean.
Like all Pinter, "The Birthday Party" and this production demand that the audience be patient enough to let the play settle over them. But the performances at any given moment are solid enough to make one more than willing to do so.
"The Birthday Party" runs through April 28 in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted. For info or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org.