But this is Harold Pinter's world, so it's really not nice at all. The scene is a squalid boardinghouse. Meg, the purveyor of the food and the questions, is smotheringly maternal. We get the feeling Petey, her husband, answers just to shut her up.
And that's the good news. Stanley, their lone boarder, is creepy and seems to have invented details of his life. He speaks of a past as a concert pianist, but it sounds far-fetched. Moreover, two mysterious and thuggish men — Goldberg and McCann — arrive on the scene. They have a bone to pick with Stanley. But we don't know what it is.
If the situation is elliptical, the dialogue (again, because it's Pinter) is even more so. Goldberg interrogates Stanley at his birthday party (it's not actually his birthday, but never mind) with questions like "Is the number 846 necessary or possible?" and "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Poor Stanley: What isn't incomprehensible is unanswerable.
The Birthday Party (1958) is one of Pinter's earliest plays, but his use of language as an open-ended weapon, and his sense of a world that's infinitely sinister and opaque, is already in full flower. Yet it's Pinter's gift to turn this into comedy — well, a kind of comedy. By rights, the play should make us laugh even as we shudder.
At McCarter, the laughter is there, at least. The company does very well by the music-hall riffs (Says Meg to Petey: "Stanley should be down for breakfast." "There's no breakfast," replies Petey. "Yes, but he doesn't know that," says Meg.) and the general sense of absurdity.
But the darker, more dangerous side is missing. When Goldberg advises McCann that one should "work hard and play hard," there ought to be a shiver of dread, and it's not really there.
Is it that the play has aged, or that Emily Mann's production doesn't quite get it? Probably a little of both. There's no doubting Pinter's importance, but his influence on writers from Joe Orton to Sam Shepard has paradoxically robbed his own plays of some freshness.
Mann errs in updating the action to the present (the still-war-ravaged England of the late '50s is something radically different from the present social climate), and in emphasizing the grotesqueness (a semblance of normalcy would sharpen the terror). It's also a bit too slow and hyperarticulated.
Still, there's much here to be enjoyed and pondered. Among the cast, Randall Newsome (McCann) is especially adroit at treading Pinter's fine line between humor and fear.
Through Oct. 15, Berlind Theatre/McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J., 609-258-2787