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Harold Pinter revival furnishes menacing laughter

Ditzy Meg (Judith Ivey) teases Stanley (Firdous Bamji) with a feather duster in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party” at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne.

To me, it’s as clear as a day without fog in Mill Valley:

Seeing Judith Ivey inhabit the ditzy, flirtatious, naïve, tea-and-cornflakes-pushing character of Meg in Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” at A.C.T. is like watching a master class in acting.

Firdous Bamji, who plays Stanley, a grungy, weird former concert pianist who’s hiding out as the sole guest in Meg’s seaside British boarding house, and Scott Wentworth, who portrays Goldberg, a nattily attired, philosophically inclined, lecherous, frosty hoodlum, might also give novice actors a few tips.

And those three are supported by an equal number of other superb Equity cast members — Marco Barricelli as McCann, Goldberg’s menacing sidekick who may be a defrocked priest; Julie Adamo as a sexpot pal of Meg unwillingly bedded down by Goldberg; and Dan Hiatt, as Meg’s diffident, routine-bound husband, Petey.

Together they help ensure that this sometimes puzzling, sometimes muddy, always talky modern play provides me and the rest of the packed opening night audience with almost continuous laugh-out-loud moments — until it turns dark deep in the second act and throughout the third.

The reactive stares into space by Ivey, a two-time Tony Award-winner, are especially compelling.

But the other actors also thrive under Carey Perloff’s exquisite direction, her last as artistic director for the American Conservatory Theater after a quarter of a century.

Perloff, who’s stepping away from the helm at the end of this season, ensures that the timing for each chortle-inducing line and glance in the play is as precise as a Patek Phillippe watch.

She also guarantees that each extended pause carries its intended effect; that abnormal, absurd events are treated as though they are perfectly ordinary; and that frequent banter morphs into bullying so quickly it can make me gasp.

Also, she seamlessly integrates a small toy drum and a party game of blind man’s buff into the challenging plot.

Robert Hand’s dramatic lighting effects and Nina Ball’s set that allows indoor action to be supplemented by visible front and rear door exits and entrances likewise enhance my enjoyment of the serio-comedy.

Pinter, a London-born playwright who died of liver cancer the day before Christmas in 2008, won the Nobel Prize for literature for works that included “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal,” both of which he adapted for the screen.

“The Birthday Party,” his second play, initially was a commercial and critical disaster that closed after only eight performances of its initial run in 1958. But its lasting quality eventually became obvious and, six decades later, is now considered a classic.

Pinter, of course, is heralded for his pithy but opaque sentences that seem to mean one thing but often can mean something else.

See if “You stink of sin” fits.

Or “You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love.”

Although Perloff hasn’t directed “The Birthday Party” for A.C.T. previously, she did direct it in New York in 1989 for the Classic Stage Company — with Pinter at rehearsals with David Strathairn, Jean Stapleton and Peter Riegert in the cast.

I somehow had missed seeing the show in any of its numerous revivals over the past six decades, so I was truly thrilled for the chance to catch it here with a first-rate cast.

Even though I didn’t grok all of the British slang and found myself leaving some of the two-hour-plus comic drama’s meaning beneath the surface.

“The Birthday Party” plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through Feb. 4. Night performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m. matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $10 to $95. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

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