(The review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Capital T Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter” hits all of the necessary notes for a Pinter performance.
Absurdist wit that menaces even as it entertains? Check.
Strong performances of characters with hidden depths revealed more by silence than language? Check.
Bare, existentialist, almost apocalyptic setting? Check.
Ambiguous, surreal conclusion? Check.
But director (and scenic designer) Mark Pickell’s version of “The Dumb Waiter” is more than just a by-the-numbers production. It daringly utilizes the small space of the Hyde Park Theater (where performances continues through Nov. 21) to create a sense of uncomfortable intimacy that places the audience into the isolated set along with the show’s protagonists.
The entirety of the one-act play takes place inside of a dingy, run-down room in some sort of undefined lodging house. Inside that room are two men, two beds, two doors, and one dumb waiter. The small scope of this scene is reinforced by the design choice to have the room dominate half of the theater space, making the audience feel like they are sharing the space with the characters. It is through this careful creation of an ultra-realistic, grounded setting that Pickell is able to draw the viewer slowly and precisely into Pinter’s strange world, to great affect.
Within that world, we meet Ben and Gus, co-workers who have little in common except for the job that they have been brought here to do. As they wait for instructions about this job from their mysterious employer – much as Vladimir and Estragon are constantly waiting in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – they talk. They talk to each other, they talk over each other, they talk at each other, and they talk beyond each other. As is typical in Pinter’s writing, the one thing missing from all of this talk is actual communication. That is left for the moments of silence, the famous “Pinter pauses” which carry as much menace as they do depth.
These pauses would be nothing without powerful actors, and Ken Webster (Ben) and Jason Phelps (Gus) carry the show with restrained performances that tell us quite a bit about these characters, yet still leave us wondering. When faced with orders and situations that don’t make sense, they react with convincing befuddlement while still managing to be a part of that confusion, themselves.
Much like these characters, the audience for The Dumb Waiter is placed into strange circumstances that never quite make sense, and must patiently wait for answers that are never going to come. This is a play about the dynamics of power, about the questioning (or lack thereof) of authority, and, ultimately, about waiting. W are left with the potent, lingering concern over just what we are all waiting for . . . and how dumb we are to do so.
“The Dumb Waiter” continues through Nov. 21 at Hyde Park Theatre. capitalt.org