Playwright Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party is an enigma tightly wound in layers of sheer danger. In Steppenwolf Theatre’s foray into the writer’s dystopian world, the fear is palpable, even if its origins remain disquietingly, intentionally murky. This is one terrifying Party indeed, directed with an astute eye for mystery and menace by Austin Pendleton.
From the start, the audience is kept off balance in this tantalizing production. Rooming house proprietress Meg (Moira Harris) is several shades too infantile toward her husband, Petey (John Mahoney) and creepily maternal toward the house’s sole boarder, Stanley (Ian Barford). Stanley is bizarrely (perhaps psychotically) hostile for no apparent reason. But the real trouble begins with the arrival of Goldberg (Francis Guinan) and McCann (Marc Grapey), cryptic representatives from some shadowy organization who exude an ominous air of authoritarian intrigue.
Like so many of the troubles that crop up in real life, McCann and Goldberg arrive without warning or clarity. Suddenly they appear, and with them more than a whiff of foreboding threat. The “what” of their actions is understood—they intend to do harm to Stanley. But the “why” behind their intent Pinter leaves unexplained. Are they symbols of the dangers of a totalitarian government? Thuggish bill collectors? Gangsters from a criminal past Stanley has kept secret? Any one of those interpretations is valid. Pinter toys with his audience, leaving the unknowns dangling in a mindfuck of a drama that is as disturbing as it is intriguing.
Arguably the most distressing scene in this dark riddle of a drama is the titular celebration. It begins with all the accoutrements of a traditional party – games, presents, boisterously jovial well-wishes. Things quickly devolve – literally and figuratively – into darkness and violence. The climax the ostensible festivities? A young woman unconscious on a table, possibly strangled to death. It’s terrifying. And it comes as no surprise when Stanley descends to the breakfast table the following morning, blood caking around his eyes.
If it’s closure and tidy corners you’re after, you’d do well to skip The Birthday Party. This is a play of disconnected angles and helter-skelter dots the audience is left to either connect or puzzle over. But there’s no denying the strength of the performances Pendleton orchestrates. Guinan (our 2010 pick for Best Actor) morphs between charming and threatening with the ease of a sociopath. Barford is both bullying and vulnerable as the hunted Stanley. Harris and Mahoney create a loving yet off-kilter couple in Meg and Petey while Grapey wrangles what passes as comic relief from the script. And as a possibly innocent/possibly not young woman who happens in on the party, Sophia Sinise (daughter of Gary) proves to be a second generation talent of formidable promise.
Catey Sullivan is Chicago magazine’s contributing theater critic.
Photograph: Michael Brosilow