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ART's 'Party' celebrates the surreal

CAMBRIDGE -- Harold Pinter and JoAnne Akalaitis are a strange couple. Pinter's plays have usually been performed in tightly focused, naturalistic settings that complement the surrealism of his prose. Akalaitis's productions are lush, resplendent in a visual postmodern language that basks in a tough whimsicality, which she proves not to be a contradiction in terms.

In the American Repertory Theatre's production of Pinter's first full-length play, "The Birthday Party," Akalaitis throws naturalism to the winds, expanding the living room of a working-class seaside house into an enormous horizontal vista of '50s kitsch framed by lime-green wallpaper with waves that symbolize the sea.

Akalaitis goes even further in creating a surrealistic stew from the 1958 play, mixing in some Carnaby Street fashion here and an Edith Bunker accent there. And is that a soupcon of Shylock in Will LeBow's voice as Goldberg, a hit man who is as funny as he is ominous? With the roaming accents, eerily eclectic music, and time-traveling references, there is clearly no attempt to capture Pinter's time and place.

And the director makes it work, ultimately, with enormous help from LeBow. Akalaitis brings out the Beckett in Pinter, which most directors would do, but there are also elements of those old Ealing Studios comedies such as "The Ladykillers," in which Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, among others, play comedic crooks.

It isn't clear that LeBow's Goldberg and Remo Airaldi's McCann are crooks, though they have come to this seaside town to collect Stanley (Thomas Derrah) and bring him back to . . . the boss? the corporation? society? Pinter modeled them in part on the two thugs in "The Killers" and the movie based on it, though there's more Kafka than Hemingway in their menace.

LeBow is an enormously talented actor who makes Goldberg his own. Sporting a pencil-thin mustache, he clearly is having a high time dancing around the stage chasing after the impossibly tall Lulu (Elizabeth Laidlaw), flattering the ditsy landlady, Meg (Karen MacDonald), threatening Stanley, or engaging in "Godot"-like repartee with his partner in expressionistic crime.

He is indeed the life of this "Party," and his speech at the end, when he's revealed as little more than a company man, is one of the many highlights. The other actors, particularly MacDonald, bring their own admirable originality to the parts, even if Derrah gets somewhat lost in the wilderness of Akalaitis's set and somewhat free-form approach. But he comes to life in grand fashion in his final scene, after Goldberg and McCann have had their way with him.

Not all Pinter fans will like this production. In fact, Pinter might well hate it. (Akalaitis is the director who brought down the wrath of Beckett for taking liberties with the 1984 ART production of "Endgame.") Pinter blamed the non-naturalistic set (along with the lack of perception by critics) for the failure of the premiere of "The Birthday Party" in 1958, telling biographer Michael Billington, "The set was an absolute disaster. It was an enormous conservatory which never existed in anyone's mind or anyone's house. . . . The naturalistic base -- which is extremely important -- was not there, so the audience were in some kind of no man's land or fairy tale."

But time has passed, and Pinter's land is now familiar enough to allow some liberties. Paul Steinberg's initially stupefying set, with an impossibly high kitchen pass-through, can be distracting -- as is the TV show that only shuts off at the end of the play. Still, Pinter's comedy blends well here with the political menace he weaves through the play. Akalaitis and the ART put their own stamp on "The Birthday Party." So does LeBow -- for he's a jolly good bad fellow.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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