devouring theatre, film, and food
Martha Lavey began the talk-back by positing a question: “What the heck is going on?” The audience laughed and the tension in the air cleared, allowing for a discussion of a complicated, often unenjoyable play from one of the 20th centuries most well-respected playwrights.
Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” is set in and around a beachfront boarding home. The proprietors, an aging couple played by Moira Harris and John Mahoney, only have one tenant: a reclusive, impulsive, and depressed Stanley (Ian Barford). When two strangers arrive to remove Stanley from the home, the questions flood in: who are they? where are they from? how do they know Stanley? what do they mean to do with him? These questions remain like undusted windowsills as the action unfolds into an impromptu, almost bacchanal celebration of Stanley’s birthday. We never know if it really is Stanley’s birthday.
When “The Birthday Party” opened in London in 1957, critics were not friendly. The sophomore effort from the then-unknown playwright was destroyed and pulled apart for lack of action, focus, and purpose. Pinter would go on to a celebrated career, even having his subtext-laden pauses dubbed “Pinter-esque,” but was “The Birthday Party” a slip-up? One critic recognized the value of the play and saved it from damning the young playwright’s career. They recognized the play is difficult, slow, and altogether bewildering, but it is the spectator’s unease, hunger for narrative, truth, resolution that Pinter situates his work. At Steppenwolf, the play is situated on an elevated rectangle with the audience flanking both sides. Scenic designer Walt Spangler notes he wanted audience member to have a front-row experience; that closeness makes the audience more self-aware, a state that can help them to unpack Pinter’s work.
“The Birthday Party” demands much of its audience, forcing them to articulate exactly why they’re not enjoying it, and use that discovery to uncover Pinter’s intention and themes. The play isn’t particularly enjoyable and that’s the point. We hunger for answers in a world that doesn’t always have them, exist in stories that can’t be neatly tied up with a birthday bow. And that realization is enough to give anyone Pinter-esque pause.
“The Birthday Party” plays through April 28, 2013. More information at steppenwolf.org