Monday, February 18, 2013

Excellent Acting, Intriguing Ambiguity Make for an Enjoyably Absurd 'Birthday Party' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Birthday Party
a play by Harold Pinter
directed by Austin Pendleton
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 28

"Pinteresque" and "Pinter Pause" are terms that mean nothing to me, or close to it. 

Although I know that Harold Pinter was a legendary, Nobel Prize winning British playwright and I had seen an excellent production of his Betrayal at Steppenwolf in 2007, heading into The Birthday Party there on Sunday afternoon, I was essentially oblivious to any common characteristics of his works--or his trademark dialogue.

I explain this having noted that far more expert theater critics such as the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones and the Reader's Tony Adler have suggested that the tone of Austin Pendleton's production in Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theater falls short of giving The Birthday Party its requisite menace and oomph.

But while I certainly don't have the perspective to judge this rendition against past takes, or reference it in context with Pinter's esteemed oeuvre, I feel safe in recommending that--especially if you have the opportunity to purchase a $20 day-of-show discount ticket, like I easily did--you won't be disappointed.

I say this despite suspecting that some may find The Birthday Party's ambiguity and seeming absurdity a bit off-putting. But I found the former to be one of the play's--Pinter's second, published in 1957--greatest virtues, and while I have had a tough time with the absurdity of Beckett and Albee, the narrative labyrinth here is more puzzling (in a thought-provoking way) than perplexing.

The entire three-act, 140-minute play takes place within an English seaside boarding house, run by Meg--played sublimely by Moira Harris, an original Steppenwolf ensemble member making her first appearance with the troupe in 15 years--and Petey (the always terrific John Mahoney, who looks a bit more robust than he's appeared in recent years).

Pollyannaish Meg and matter-of-fact Petey are husband and wife, but I wasn't initially certain of this due to the way they spoke almost like strangers. As Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey references in her program notes, much of the dialogue plays like a riddle, with the audience left to wonder what is fact, fiction, fantasy or some combination of the above.

When the story begins, the only boarder is Stanley (a sensational Ian Barford), who used to be--perhaps--a touring pianist of some note. But then Goldberg (another remarkable Steppenwolf stalwart, Francis Guinan) and McCann (Marc Grapey, recently seen in The Odd Couple, The Iceman Cometh and Race), show up, seemingly with sinister interest in Stanley. 

I'm not going to reveal anything more about what happens in the play--other than to mention that the sixth character is Lulu, a young neighbor woman played by Sophia Sinise, who is the daughter of Moira Harris & Gary Sinise and luminous in a Grace Kelly sort of way--but I don't know that I could if I wanted to.

Is Stanley a criminal whose past is catching up with him? A broken-down rebel hunted by an authoritarian state? A former virtuoso who has to pay up for his Faustian bargain?

He easily could be any or none of these, and as echoed in a post-show discussion, Pinter intentionally leaves things--everything--open to interpretation.

Though Pinter was supposedly meticulous in his scripted stage directions and Pendleton seemingly followed them to a T--including, conceivably, the brilliant cat-and-mouse table circling between Stanley and McCann at the start of Act 2--according to the discussion moderator, the playwright gave no clear indications about any meanings, motivations, circumstances, etc.

As I referenced above, if you need to leave the theater knowing exactly what just happened, you shouldn't attend The Birthday Party.

But if you don't mind--or actually enjoy--pontificating about the possibilities on the way home, without any concrete answers to be had, the superlative cast at Steppenwolf will leave you with much to contemplate and, particularly for a bargain price, celebrate.

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