Remo Airaldi and Will LeBow in The Birthday Party(Photo © Richard Feldman)
Remo Airaldi and Will LeBow in The Birthday Party
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
Harold Pinter has a knack for putting the audience in the position of a frightened child. You've just seen something scary but exactly what remains inchoate -- future grist for an analyst. Critics have been thwarted in their attempts to parse The Birthday Party ever since its 1958 debut. The author has upheld his right to ambiguity -- a smart move, because it's the sheer shapelessness of the operant threat that makes it so unsettling. Guest directing at the American Repertory Theatre, JoAnne Akalaitis brilliantly underscores both the murk and the menace of the play.

Paul Steinberg's set is itself horrific: a seaside parlor packed with several households' worth of mid-century moderne furnishings. Rather than reduce the A.R.T. stage's generous dimensions to a suitably cramped scale, Steinberg has chosen to clutter a vast, aquarium-like space in which expanses of sea-green wallpaper -- reminiscent of a particularly hideous pattern of textured vinyl -- suggest oceanic depths. The motif is occasionally echoed with an ominous susurrus in Bruce Odland's expressive original score.

About this bourgeois mausoleum dithers the aggressively cheery Meg Boles (Karen MacDonald). Picture Edith Bunker by way of Monty Python: She shuffles, she natters ("Are they nice?" she inquires about the cornflakes she has just served her husband), she regales herself with a high soprano hum while tidying up. Once hubby Petey heads off to work (the role is nicely underplayed by Terence Rigby, whose association with the Pinter canon dates back decades), Meg turns her attention to their surly lodger, Stanley (Thomas Derrah), with whom she may -- or may not -- enjoy afternoon delight.

This comedic setup is clearly due for a rude tilt. It comes soon enough when Stanley, a self-deluding, unemployed pianist, turns nasty at the news that he'll be expected to share quarters with two strangers -- or are they? As the flagrant con man Goldberg, Will LeBow exerts a hypnotic power over the other characters and the audience alike; with his honeyed voice and platitudinous riffs, always slightly skewed, he comes across like Walt Disney trying to suppress an insistent dark side. As his enforcer, the Irishman McCann, Remo Airaldi never quite masters the accent or the necessary aura of banked violence.

Still, Goldberg and McCann are plenty intimidating as the vectors of jollity (Meg initiates a birthday party for Stanley, though he claims it's the wrong date) intersect with the imperatives of the visitors' agenda -- whatever that may be. What happens during the party and after is a matter for conjecture but one thing is certain: Stanley emerges a ruined man. Derrah, who has been evasively playing the edges of the stage, brings a gut-wrenching pathos to this reckoning.

Is there a political subtext to all of this? Surely, and it's as relevant today as it was in the repressive '50s. But the play is, above all else, a human story -- maybe even the human story in that it addresses the lies we all tend to tell ourselves. In recapping this Walpurgisnacht, Meg wraps it up with a whopper. Then it's up to us to pick up the shards and head out into the real world, which may never again seem quite the same to us.

This is a powerful work in a near-perfect rendition. Whatever the ultimate purpose of theater -- yet another enigma to ponder -- it ought to leave spectators roiled, their preconceptions temporarily displaced. Days after seeing The Birthday Party, you still may not know what hit you, much less what happened to poor Stan.