The set is a 1950s kitchen, with a yellow linoleum table and red-and-white checked floor tiles. A woman in a yellow dress is in the foreground with a blindfold on. It appears to be a game of blind man's bluff. Another woman in a black-and-white checked dress stands right behind her. A man in a white shirt and blue-green tie is on the right, pointing to the blindfolded woman. Another man stands in the left corner. In the center rear behind the table is a man in a brown bathrobe. Visible above his head is a banner hanging from a door way reading "Happy Birthday."
The Birthday Party at City Lit Theater Credit: Steve Graue

If you were concerned that Chicago’s storefront theaters lost their mojo during the pandemic, get thee to Terry McCabe’s gripping production of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. It’s a meta-accomplishment: not a false note in this version of a play that’s entirely about false notes. Pinter’s breakthrough piece (albeit a flop at the time), encompasses all the themes for which he later became known: the mindlessness and dishonesty of most of what passes for communication; the universal capacity, and appetite, for savagery; how no one is innocent but anyone might be a victim; how most efforts at heroism—or even simple humanity—end with a whimper.

The Birthday Party
Through 2/26: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 2/13 and 2/20 7:30 PM; City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, 773-293-3682,, $34 ($29 seniors, $12 students and military)

McCabe has cast the show flawlessly, anchored by perfect-pitch Elaine Carlson as Meg, whose comic cluelessness devolves into hideously willful blindness, and by James Sparling as Goldberg, who looks and sounds exactly like Patrick Stewart at his most posh while simultaneously nailing every stereotype of the East End London Jew getting what he wants at others’ expense. The entire six-person ensemble is strong, and there’s a particular pleasure in watching 6-foot-6-inch Will Casey as the henchman McCann looming over David Fink, a foot shorter, as the titular guest of honor and designated victim Stanley.

I’ve often felt that I don’t understand what Pinter is on about: menace, sure, and the comedy of cruelty, but to what end? I can offer this production no higher praise than to say, now I get it.  Highly recommended, as in Do. Not. Miss.