"Birthday Party" (Steppenwolf Theatre): Perverse Party of the Year

"Birthday Party" (Steppenwolf Theatre):  Perverse Party of the Year

Steppenwolf Theatre presents BIRTHDAY PARTY.  Stanley is a recluse hiding out in a vacant boarding house.  His married landlady is a lunatic.  She smothers him with maternal and flirtatious affection.  And she has decided to throw him a surprise birthday party. The guest list is short.  His landlord isn’t even attending because of a weekly chess game.  Still, the neighborhood gal will be there, as well as, two gentlemen new to the inn.  It’s time to celebrate.  Or is it?  Scotch and whiskey flow.  Tensions heighten.  And a game of Blind Man’s Bluff changes everything forever.  BIRTHDAY PARTY is hands down the perverse party of the year.

Playwright Harold Pinter knows how to create the atmosphere for a zany get together.  He invited an eclectic group of characters to get drunk and mingle together.  I’m never quite sure who’s who and what’s what in this homage of hidden agendas.  All I know is I’m completely transfixed from cornflakes to cornflakes.  Under the calculated direction of Austin Pendleton, huge waves of intrigue crest and fall at this beachside haven.  Pendleton forces the talented cast to take their time in their warped reveals of self.  Using a traverse stage, Pendleton hosts his party intimately.  I feel like I’m in the dining room and just a few feet from sliding my chair into the festivity.  I see every grimace, every glazed eye, every spitting word.  I am so in this room!

This ensemble is phenomenal!  They are all kinds of wacko.  I’m particularly transfixed on Moira Harris (Meg) who is a daft, adorable loon.  Harris has this living-in-a -bubble sweetness.  For years, I thought Marc Grapey (McCann) and Ian Barford (Stanley) were the same person like a Michael-Janet Jackson illusion.  This show shatters that belief as both of the look-alike duo are present on stage.  While Grapey fumes with guarded mystery, Barford is just bat-shit-crazy.  Barford implodes regularly in huge fits of rage.  The end of Act 2 is particularly unsettling because of Barford’s antics.  In the role with the most range opportunity, Francis Guinan (Goldberg) hits a grand slam. Guinan is elegant, sleazy, unhinged and cuckoo...sometimes within the same scene.  Supporting the demented in their delusional states, a steadfast John Mahoney (Petey) and fun-loving Sophia Sinise (Lulu) round out the cast.

I really loved this BIRTHDAY PARTY.  The story, the direction, the acting were superb.  I was riveted the entire time.  I imagine some may claim it moves too slow.  I would argue the pacing is perfectly intentional.  I would also support the elimination of an intermission.  Without the need for a scenery change, two intermissions seems over-indulgent for this party.

Running Time:  Two hours and thirty minutes includes two intermissions.

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Written by Harold Pinter

Directed by Austin Pendleton

Thru April 28th

Buy Tickets at www.steppenwolf.org

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