Can "The Birthday Party" be celebrated in a wide-open space? It depends, surely, on the intent of the event. As the history of the 20th century teaches us, and as the Nobel laureate Harold Pinter understood at a very early age, unwanted, destructive guests aren't averse to showing up in clearings, ready to ship off, drag out, cart away the inconvenient. Nowhere is ever really safe, even from one's own paranoia.
That said, the 27-year-old Pinter set his first full-length drama in a seedy seaside boarding house in England (Blackpool, maybe, or Brighton, or Torquay). That's a specific, confining locale; the kind of place where, if you spend too much time, the walls start closing in on you and you feel like you might disappear inside the flock wallpaper. No bad thing, that, if you're stuck inside a Pinter play.
In his new production of "The Birthday Party" for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Austin Pendleton decides to keep the table where Meg (Moira Harris, in her first Steppenwolf appearance in 15 years) and Petey (John Mahoney) sit to eat breakfast and chatter about their boarder, Stanley (Ian Barford) — a fellow who has secluded himself to try escape a variety of neuroses and omnipresent childhood guilt. But when Goldberg (Francis Guinan) and McCann (Marc Grapey), mysterious operatives with the kind of hidden motives common to so much of Pinter's subsequent work, show up to mess with Stanley, and to be messed with by Stanley's strange insides, you don't see Stanley pressed up against the walls, laying out his guts. There are no walls. You look through Goldberg and McCann at your fellow audience members. The action takes place on a long platform in the center of the room (designed by Walt Spangler, with costumes by Rachel Anne Healy and lights by Keith Parham). There are few sharp cues. You hear people coming around from behind the audience risers long before they arrive.
"The Birthday Party" is no piece of kitchen-sink realism (although the script does make reference to a kitchen hatch in the rear). And one surely can see the temptation of putting the late Pinter on that kind of pedestal: Most critics may have missed the merits of this admittedly opaque play in 1958, but time has proven its brilliance. Still, when you've got one half of the audience in focus-diverting full view of the other half, you risk the situation that presented itself on Saturday night. For the entire third act, I was staring at a woman fast asleep. That was an extreme example, but I wouldn't mention it if not for the broader indication that the audience as a whole was engaged only intermittently. The show was not making enough of a case for the play. That was a consequence, I think, of two fundamental problems with this production. One is the lack of a clearly rooted set of circumstances so that we know who these people are, where we are, and have a sense of the rules under attack. The other is a debilitating lack of menace, which brings with it a debilitating lack of dramatic tension.
Or, to put all this another way, the stakes are too low. And with Pinter, the stakes are a darn big part of the whole cricket match. Without some kind of normal referent in the play, any deviation from that normalcy (or what passes for normalcy in our absurd lives) just doesn't have the same impact. There's just no baseline here. The play seems to float and, well, play, but Pinter needs some sharp corners.
Pendleton, it would seem, has approached the work with the kind of freeing, self-effacing fluidity that makes him such a distinguished director of the works of Anton Chekhov (the best living American director thereof, for my money). But with Chekhov (and with the play "Time Stands Still" last season) Pendleton has been able to apply his gifts to the depiction of individualized psychological trauma and of the humor behind collective human behavior, especially as it relates to social ritual. That's a big part of "The Birthday Party," and those are the parts that work in this production, sometimes quite deliciously. But in Pinter, people are always coming to get you, if you don't get yourself first. It's that palpable fear of the external that's missing here, along with a sense of what is about to be lost.
Pendleton has cast some formidable actors in this production, all of whom bring the play to life as they take the spotlight. Barford has a couple of quite dazzling about-faces. Guinan has moments when he finds just the right mix of geniality and malevolence. Grapey gets the humor in the piece while still maintaining complexity. And, in the first act, Harris offers a really fascinating and twisted character, even if you struggle in the end to fit her into the full puzzle. Sophia Sinise, who plays the much-desired Lulu and whom Healy clearly enjoyed costuming, adds a certain eclectic poise.
But in a production crying out for more of a point of view, it's only the superb Mahoney, a natural absurdist actor, who really seems to capture the pain of these characters and their inability to control so many of their circumstances. There are two great scenes here. One is at the start of the play, when Mahoney's Petey and Harris's Meg find intimacy amidst the mundane, and when you can clearly see how Mahoney's deckchair attendant has found solace in the nurturing of another, and the fear that comes therewith. The other is at the end, when Petey says to Stan, "Don't let them tell you what to do," just as they are taking Stan away. You can see Mahoney's eyes glisten with the knowledge that, so often, they do tell the one you love what to do, and it's not always a good thing.
Through April 28 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes; tickets: $20-$78 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org