Harold Pinter was a rare playwright. His plays have largely been regarded as enigmas, fascinating dramas that take a bit of unraveling. Steppenwolf’s current production of his masterpiece “The Birthday Party” has all the complexity and tension this play requires. If you enjoy well-acted, tension-filled evenings at the theater, this production is a must-see.
“The Birthday Party,” like much of Pinter’s work, is deliberately unclear. The play takes place in an English seaside town at the guesthouse of Meg and Petey (Moira Harris and John Mahoney). Petey is a deck chair attendant, and his wife Meg manages the house (or does she do more than that?). Their only guest in the house, Stanley (Ian Barford) is a former pianist (but maybe he isn’t). We meet Lulu (Sophia Sinise), a young, shy girl who we think might be Stanley’s girlfriend (but maybe she isn’t), because we get the impression that Mega and Stanley have been intimate (but maybe not). Into the picture come two gentlemen, Goldberg (Francis Guinan) and McCann (Marc Grapey). They come to spend the night at Meg and Petey’s house (but who are they really and why are they there?). What does become instantly apparent, however is they are there for Stanley. But what are their real motives? When Goldberg finds out from Meg that it’s Stanley’s birthday (which is never confirmed), he insists that they throw him a birthday party, but not before he and McCann break down Stanley’s defenses in a frightening and disturbing interrogation scene.
The party, which features a good deal of very creepy flirting between Lulu and Goldberg, and a particularly sinister game of blind man’s bluff, is the dramatic climax of the play. In fact, none of the characters are quite the same after the party is over.
Moira Harris is brilliant as Meg, the woman past her prime, but still yearning to be the Belle of the Ball, as is Ian Barford, whose Stanley is the perfect mixture of defiance and abject fear. Francis Guinan and Marc Grapey’s Goldberg and McCann bring with them a wave of dread that never goes away. We never learn who exactly they are, but the effect they have on the inhabitants is very real. They are the perfect storm in the play.
Please make an effort to get to this “Birthday Party.” You’ll be glad you did.