Chicago Theater Review: THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (Steppenwolf)

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by Erika Mikkalo on February 6, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

PIÑATA FULL OF DARKNESS

Don’t be concerned if you don’t receive an invitation to Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party – the Steppenwolf’s revival production is still an event not to be missed. Caretaker Meg Bowles and her deck-chair attendant spouse, Petey (Moira Erika Mikkalo's Stage and Cinema review of Steppenwolf's "The Birthday Party," ChicagoHarris, returning to the Steppenwolf for the first time since 1998, and John Mahoney) tend a glum and vaguely battered boardinghouse somewhere on the English shore. Their flawlessly timed banter of the banal – the cornflakes, the paper, the tea – establish the measured absurdity and bleakness of the setting. Mahoney’s quiet comedy is spot-on, tending to anchor the scenes in which he appears.

This boardinghouse has only one boarder, a troubled pianist named Stanley, disheveled and dissolute. Moira’s inappropriate ministrations make it seem as if he could be a son, and the fact of his tenancy comes as a surprise. Stanley is in apparent exile, occasionally tolerating the landlady’s attentions, but incapable of interacting with the lovely young Englishwoman, Lulu (Sophia Sinise) whose every step is practiced flirtatious blonde.

Erika Mikkalo's Stage and Cinema review of Steppenwolf's "The Birthday Party," ChicagoThe already discomfiting scene becomes more disturbing with the addition of two visitors: Nat Goldberg, an apparently wealthy man of possibly criminal means, skillfully played by Francis Guinan, who oscillates between cunning charm and extravagant theatricality; and Dermot McCann, an associate of few words – as played by Mark Grapey, McCann participates in events with an aura of calm (but very taut) threat.

As the scenes spin toward the eponymously inevitable birthday party, the expert dedication of the cast allows the audience to appreciate the wordplay of Pinter’s wit and recoil at his unsettling perspective on humanity. The characters engage in the patter of daily life, wax nostalgic, declaim and deceive, but any hope of awareness, let alone redemption, grows increasingly remote.

Erika Mikkalo's Stage and Cinema review of Steppenwolf's "The Birthday Party," Chicago

Walt Spangler chose to design a startlingly simple set: a wall-less central “room” flanked by the audience, an island of a dining table floating on its oriental carpet. This definitely works, allowing the audience to view the actors as creatures in a Petri dish, haplessly swimming in the mechanizations of the playwright’s design. Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes are picture-perfect, particularly the confectionary dresses she clearly enjoyed selecting for the coquettish Lulu.

Erika Mikkalo's Stage and Cinema review of Steppenwolf's "The Birthday Party," Chicago

Austin Pendleton’s direction is precise and prophetic, leading a great cast through an occasionally funny and ultimately chilling document of dread. While the original 1958 staging of The Birthday Party was not well received, closing in two weeks, this production succeeds because of the continuing relevance of unexpected threat. Now, more than ever, few nations appear too free from the threat of the uninvited visitors, the midnight knock on the door.

Erika Mikkalo's Stage and Cinema review of Steppenwolf's "The Birthday Party," Chicago

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Birthday Party
Steppenwolf Theater
scheduled to end on April 28, 2012
for tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit http://www.steppenwolf.org/

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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