Pause now to consider The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter. The 1957 one-act opens the 25th season for Kitchen Dog Theater, now working in its new (temporary) home at The Green Zone on the edge of the Design District.
The smaller theater is an awkward fit for a company used to more elbow room in their old space at McKinney Avenue Contemporary. The play is a mismatch for its two actors, Kitchen Dog company member Michael Federico and co-artistic director Christopher Carlos. Tim Johnson directed them.
Federico and Carlos play professional assassins Gus and Ben, Cockney blokes idling on cots in a dingy basement in Birmingham, England, waiting for instructions about whom to shoot next and when, though it takes some time to get to all that. Pinter’s script is exceedingly spare. Before a word in The Dumb Waiter is spoken, Gus goes through some physical gyrations to deal with a stubborn shoelace, an empty matchbox and a cigarette packet. (Federico is funny, but over-clowns.) Gus exits to the toilet through a door upstage left, leaving Ben alone to read his newspaper. We hear Gus try to flush. He’s unsuccessful. He re-enters, looking defeated.
The silence is broken when Ben finally speaks. “Kaw!” he says, looking up from his paper. “What about this? Listen to this.” He reads Gus a story about an old man run over by a “lorry” on a busy road. Distracted by the toilet problem, Gus parrots back the details without really listening.
And so it goes for most of The Dumb Waiter, a taut, occasionally funny 45-minute play that Kitchen Dog’s production stretches out to a dull 75 for no good reasons. Director Johnson and his actors never click with the specific rhythms of the dialogue or with Pinter’s pauses. Because they aren’t in control of the pacing, the actors sometimes look as if they’ve simply gone up on their lines and aren’t sure who speaks next.
Other details that matter haven’t been attended to. Carlos can’t do even a passable Cockney accent, but at least Federico tries, though not convincingly. The dismal, dung-colored set by Clare Floyd DeVries is too spread out and it uses the two doors, up left and down right, for the wrong purposes. Even the props by John Slauson are faulty. That should not be a broadsheet newspaper in Ben’s hands, but a “red top” British tabloid such as The Sun or The Mirror.
The Dumb Waiter needs powerful actors as Gus and Ben, who, between long spells of not talking, prattle about cups of tea, biscuits and other banalities. Pinter hints at impending danger in their chit-chat as they fret about when they’ll hear from “Wilson,” their unseen boss. They bicker with each other, with Ben lording over a submissive, fearful Gus. (Carlos’ Ben is so weak, he’s almost invisible. Federico’s Gus is just a goofball.)
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Think of Gus and Ben as Vladimir and Estragon, and Wilson as Godot, and it’s clear that this early work of Pinter’s was heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett’s play about two characters waiting for someone important who never arrives.
With a roar and a crash, the play shifts into higher gear when the dumbwaiter in the wall delivers a surprise. Gus opens the old contraption — a leftover from a café that used to be on the floor above — and reads an order for two servings of steak and chips. Confused, the men send up all the food they have, but more orders are sent down, each more exotic. They panic. Through an old pneumatic tube they shout upstairs, asking for help. Is it Wilson up there? Who controls the dumbwaiter? Who controls Ben and Gus?
It’s a strange play, imposing absurd elements onto a bare-bones situation of two murderers fighting boredom in a claustrophobic room. Pinter’s long pauses ask for patience from actors and audience. If the Kitchen Dog guys trusted the pauses, they could use them to build to the play’s big plot twist: One of the killers must kill the other. But this production blows even the final moment of silence, placing the victim out of the view of at least half the audience. Blimey, that’s dumb.
The Dumb Waiter continues through October 10 at Kitchen Dog Theater, The Green Zone, 161 Riveredge Drive. Tickets $15-$30 at 214-953-1055 or kitchendogtheater.org.