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Steppenwolf’s ‘Birthday Party’ is worth celebrating

Petey (John Mahoney) embraces his wife Meg (MoirHarris) Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s producti'The Birthday Party'  by Harold Pinter directed by

Petey (John Mahoney) embraces his wife, Meg (Moira Harris), in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of "The Birthday Party" by Harold Pinter, directed by Austin Pendleton.

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Updated: March 5, 2013 6:22AM

It is a dining room table — that iconic symbol of “the nuclear family” — that serves as the centerpiece of the spellbinding Steppenwolf Theatre revival of “The Birthday Party,” Harold Pinter’s deeply enigmatic, creepily sinister, often darkly funny play dating from 1958. And to be sure, this is no accident.

That table — the lone, unmovable object in the Upstairs Theatre’s new runway configuration — begins to look more and more like an island. Initially safe and wholly mundane in its isolation, it is increasingly besieged. And what becomes ever more clear as Pinter’s story unspools is that “the family of man” that exists beyond the discontent inside the nonexistent walls and neatly carpeted confines of this “safe house” is even more devious, opportunistic, threatening and brutal. There truly is no place to hide.

And oh, did I forget to mention that under Austin Pendleton’s needle-sharp, revelatory direction, this production is a master class in acting? It is led by a cast of five peerless veterans (Moira Harris, John Mahoney, Francis Guinan, Ian Barford and Marc Grapey), with one eye-catching newcomer, Sophia Sinise (daughter of Harris and Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise), who clearly has inherited an ideal set of theatrical genes.

“The Birthday Party” is set in an English seaside boarding house owned by an aging couple — caretaker Meg Bowles (Harris, back at Steppenwolf for the first time since 1998, and in bravura form) and Petey (Mahoney), whose morning ritual of corn flakes, newspaper reading and non-communication with his wife sets the play’s tragicomic, Beckettlike tone. (Petey’s job as a deck chair attendant on the pier keeps him offstage for all but a few crucial scenes, which Mahoney nails with gorgeous minimalism.)

And then there is Stanley (Barford, astonishing in his volatility, vulnerability and impotence), a washed-up, depressive young pianist who is the couple’s sole border. Is he the Bowles’ surrogate son, or the real son who receives quite a bit too much attention from his mum and not nearly enough from his dad? Either way, he is not quite right. He can’t make a connection with Lulu (Sinise, pitch-perfect as an English bird who fully senses her seductive power), the fetching young blonde neighbor who comes on to him in her faux-haughty manner. And he very definitely is in some kind of serious trouble in the wider world, which is why he is in semi-hiding.

The tension rises palpably with the arrival of a wealthy Jewish businessman/mobster, Nat Goldberg (Guinan, in a dazzling performance whose daring emotionalism and conniving seductiveness are near operatic in intensity), and his tense, taciturn, Irish henchman, Dermot McCann (Grapey, whose less-is-more approach works wonderfully here).

Goldberg knows immediately that he can charm and disarm Meg. And he is just smarmy enough to seduce Lulu. He also can easily work his psychological terror on Stanley before someone else finishes the job.

What Pendleton and his actors do so brilliantly here — aside from acting the stuffings out of every suggestive, meticulously orchestrated moment in the play — is to reveal Pinter’s profoundly disturbing take on human nature. As each character weaves his or her own narrative with just enough lies and self-deceptions to survive, all the pain and discontent of their real existence becomes transparent. Along the way, several of them — most notably Meg and Goldberg — engage in a long chorale of idealized childhood memories. Whether real or embellished, they are at considerable distance from their adult lives.

As for finding a defender or protector in this world — forget about it. Most are too self-involved or oblivious. Those who can see what is happening are too late to act, and impotent.

Walt Spangler’s inspired set, Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes (oh, those sweater vests) and Josh Schmidt’s eerie soundscape are a perfectly primed canvas for Pinter’s insidious dialogue. This is a “Birthday Party” you will not soon forget.

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