Unlike the Super Bowl, when the lights go out in "The Birthday Party," the play goes on.
And if you think that makes it tough to tell what exactly is happening in Harold Pinter's deliberately disjointed drama, it doesn't get much easier in the full bright lights of the new center-placed stage at Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre.
"The Birthday Party"★ ★ ★
Location: Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through April 28
Parking: Metered street parking and a pay garage.
Rating: For adults; features suggestive language and sophisticated themes
Yet Pinter's work has been a constant at Steppenwolf over the years, as the theater company's physicality has served to complement the playwright's head games, and that goes for the current production of Pinter's first full-length play as well.
This drama doesn't have a plot, nor the time shuffling of his later works, so much as it deals in emotional states, both in the characters and in their effect on the audience. It rings of Beckett in that regard, so it's apropos that Ian Barford and Francis Guinan are reunited from their earlier teaming in "Endgame."
Things get started with Steppenwolf stalwarts John Mahoney and Moira Harris as Petey and Meg, who run a humdrum boardinghouse in a British seaside resort. Unaffectionate as their relationship might seem, with the batty Meg serving a makeshift breakfast to Petey on his way out to work as a deck-chair attendant, they form something of a family unit with Barford's Stanley, a former concert pianist (or is that just one of his many delusions?) who's been holed up with them for a year.
Stanley is one of Barford's trademark lantern-jawed louts, and his relationship with Meg is never really clear, never more so than when he's calling her "succulent."
Yet things only get creepier when Guinan's Goldberg arrives with Marc Grapey's McCann, saying, "This is the house." The air of disturbing, disquieting menace is hardly tempered by Sophia Sinise's Lulu, who tells Stanley he could use a wash, only to have him reply, "It wouldn't make any difference."
The play keeps hinting that Stanley is headed for death. He has a hard time waking up in the first act, and in the second, which contains the title event, Goldberg says of the unpleasant waking hours: "What are you but a corpse waiting to be washed?" When he later asks Stanley what name he's going under now, Stanley replies, "Joe Soap."
Nothing ever really adds up in this play. It's just moments and characters played for effect. Even the familiar trope of an interrogation scene between Goldberg and McCann on one side and Stanley on the other is disjointed. Stanley can't even get off a reply to, "Why did the chicken cross the road?"
"I trust you," Lulu later tells Goldberg.
"Gesundheit," he replies.
Somehow, however, this play packs a punch, especially as delivered by Steppenwolf. Guinan is smoothly sinister in a Sydney Greenstreet manner as Goldberg, and Grapey has a rodent's profile that suits his predatory character well. Mahoney is excellent as ever, and even Harris' distant demeanor seems right for Meg. Steppenwolf baby Sinise (yes, daughter of Gary and playing alongside her mother, Harris) is born to the stage. If Barford's Stanley doesn't quite hold the play together at the center, perhaps that's because Pinter doesn't intend it to hold together and denies it has a true center at all.
Again unlike the Super Bowl, when the play ends there is no clear winner or loser, no tangible tally of a final score. It's simply over, with nothing but "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" to comfort the audience. It's small solace.