Credit: Michael Brosilow

Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party starts with a crisp old English gent taking a seat at the dining room table in his house by the sea. He’s been perusing the morning paper for a minute or two when a voice from offstage asks, “Is that you, Petey?” The gent doesn’t react. “Petey, is that you?” Still no response. “Petey?” “What?” he finally says. “Is that you?” “Yes, it’s me.”

And there you have it: the most definitive declaration of identity—of anything, really—in the whole piece of work.

Pinter’s 1958 play is famous for its conscientious refusal to pick a set of facts and stick with them. Petey and the woman with the questions, Meg, may make a business of letting out rooms to vacationers, but then again maybe they don’t. Their star lodger, Stanley, often seems to be something other than a lodger, and his story about having played piano concerts undergoes a whole series of modifications. The two strangers who show up at Petey and Meg’s house get to retain a single set of surnames, Goldberg and McCann, but adopt new first names according to some arcane social algorithm. Goldberg (“Nat” in one set of circumstances, “Simey” in another, “Benny” for a flourish) tells the same nostalgic anecdote, first as a story about his mother and then as a story about his wife. McCann, Goldberg, and Stanley are apparently acquainted with one another, but exactly how is impossible to say, even after Goldberg and McCann start interrogating Stanley noir-detective style.

Of course, any decent mystery creates a universe in which nothing is quite what it seems. But The Birthday Party takes that model to another absurd, often darkly comic level, where every clue folds in on itself. It’s not that the facts are hidden, but that the facts aren’t facts. This teasing lack of solid information puts us in a kind of swaying, swimming, centerless reality that gets to pitching and reeling as Pinter ratchets up the necessarily arbitrary violence. No wonder his late plays gravitated to the subjects of government terror and the political use of torture.

Early critics tagged this narrative vertigo the “comedy of menace,” and productions of The Birthday Party have tended to locate that menace in Goldberg and McCann, who are typically depicted as a couple of genial gentleman thugs—pros in sharkskin suits, sent by who knows who to punish Stanley for who knows what.

In the new Steppenwolf Theatre Company staging, director Austin Pendleton tries something a little bit different. His G & M are sinister, all right, but they’re hardly killing machines. One early scene has McCann confronting Stanley when Stanley attempts to leave the house; even as he lays down the law, Marc Grapey’s low-affect McCann continually backs away from Ian Barford’s big baby of a Stanley. Indeed, there’s no reason why Stanley can’t just walk out the door, except that he may enjoy making circles around the dining room table. You’d almost think McCann was scared of him. Add in the fact that Barford is bigger than Grapey—and that costume designer Rachel Anne Healy has put both Grapey and Francis Guinan’s Goldberg in down-market togs bearing no resemblance to sharkskin—and the whole idea of menace begins to look ludicrous.

Pendleton’s demystification of the thugs transforms the dynamics of the play, for better and for worse. On the one hand, it allows us to focus on matters we might otherwise skim over. With McCann and Goldberg casting shorter shadows, for instance, an amorous subtext involving Stanley, Meg, and a young neighbor named Lulu comes into full relief. Suddenly, Meg’s obvious affection for Stanley takes on more intricate tones. Pendleton encourages us to fill in the blanks by casting a white-haired John Mahoney as Petey opposite Moira Harris, whose Meg not only looks younger than him but gives the impression of having suffered a Blanche DuBois-esque emotional crack-up sometime in the past. The fact that Harris’s real-life daughter Sophia Sinise plays Lulu just makes the mind race that much faster.

On the other hand, reducing Goldberg and McCann’s menace quotient severely depletes, well, the sense of menace. Inasmuch as we’re no longer scared of the two strangers, the prospect of what they might do to the other characters—and to Stanley in particular—is no longer much of a consideration. And a huge source of dramatic energy is lost. In the end, and through a great deal of the beginning, the show comes across as way too languid.