THE DUMB WAITER
by Harold Pinter
Kitchen Dog Theater
Directed by Tim Johnson
Stage Manager – Ruth Stevenson
Scenic Design – Clare Floyd DeVries
Lighting Design – Suzanne Lavender
Costume Design – Jen J. Madison
Sound Design – John M. Flores
Properties Design – John Slauson
Dialect Coach – Jenni Steck
Technical Director – James Stroman
Assistant Stage Manager – Katie Brown
Ben – Christopher Carlos
Gus – Michael Federico
Reviewed Performance: 9/11/2015
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Written in 1957, The Dumb Waiter is possibly the best of Harold Pinter's early works. The plot of The Dumb Waiter revolves around two hit-men, Ben and Gus, who wait in a basement room for orders from Wilson, their mysterious boss. Soon, however, their normal methods of whiling away the time are interrupted when mysterious notes begin arriving via a dumbwaiter installed in the wall of the room.
Pinter himself acknowledged the influence of his friend, Samuel Beckett, on his plays, and some might contend that The Dumb Waiter is an absurdist comedy, much in the style of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The play is certainly witty. Others might note the political implications of the play, suggesting that Pinter is showing how power pulls at threads that weaken and eventually unravel individualism. On-stage moments can certainly be dark and dramatic. Regardless, it's safe to say that Pinter wants his audience members to draw their own meaning from the gulf that separates his characters; he wants you to laugh and to think, but mostly he wants you to explore what you feel.
Pinter claimed that silence was a form of nakedness and that speech was a stratagem designed to cover this nakedness, so it is only fitting that the true natures of his characters emerge during silence, of which there is plenty in The Dumb Waiter.
Gus, played by Michael Federico, reveals himself through silence in the first several minutes of the play. In a lesser actor's hands, this opening scene could come across as either ludicrous or mundane, but Federico's performance is engaging and contains multiple layers. While his initial pensive frown suggests concern, his studious preoccupation with his shoes and his frequent physical mishaps present a character that is puzzled, slightly buffoonish, easily distracted, and filled with pent-up frustration. Then, when Federico does finally open his mouth, his Cockney-laced incredulity is perfectly calculated to imbue Gus with a child-like sincerity and vulnerability. A wide array of emotions is expressed throughout the play, and Federico maintains a well-crafted performance, displaying superb comedic timing and shifting from intrigue to fear to semi-hypnosis with great aplomb. His facial expressions while expressing his discomfort with a former assignment are quite haunting. Other particularly memorable moments all seem to have something to do with his bed, whether he is rubbing his face in it, tiptoeing across it, bemusedly sitting atop it, or polishing weapons with it.
Ben, played by Christopher Carlos, is the senior member of the duo. Early on, Carlos betrays a dominance and subdued agitation lurking beneath the surface of Ben, which later manifests itself as violence. Similar to Gus, much of Ben's character development occurs during silent moments in the play, and Carlos is expert at projecting both fury and uncertainty through an intensity in his eyes and a physical restlessness. Through Carlos's ominous preparations with his gun, the barely-controlled resentment evinced by his distraction with and rattling of his newspaper, and his hulking physical bullying of Federico, we see the monster lurking within Ben, and yet moments containing joy and humor and disclosing evident fear of the unknown allow us to feel his humanity. And perhaps this is where the intricacy of Carlos's performance mainly lies--in the questions he leaves lurking in the minds of the audience; one is never certain about how much Ben knows about his role in the events to come.
A potential third actor exists on stage in the form of the dumbwaiter itself, which seems reminiscent of Wilson, Ben and Gus's mysterious boss. The thudding insistence with which the dumbwaiter delivers messages from above and the awe with which the actors treat it also leads one to think of it as another player. It is also interesting that the gaps in time between message deliveries seem reminiscent of the pregnant pauses that so deftly outline the other characters. This time, however, we feel the inhumanity and remoteness of the entity on the other end of the dumbwaiter shaft; this feeling is further cemented through the only form of communication allowed with this unknown individual—a speaking tube.
A feeling of disconnection is carried through in the rest of the set, which does its part to create a taut atmosphere. The windowless basement with its grubby, battered walls is claustrophobic and reminiscent of a virtual coffin. A particularly intriguing touch is seen in the placement of the fragments of peeling wallpaper in the room—one piece above Gus's spare bed frame, the other, rather higher on the wall, above Ben's. The enigmatic pieces of the room—doors beyond which lurk mysteries, a photograph that displays “the first eleven” (of what?), an intricate and out-of-place art deco light fixture, and the marled finish that seems designed to hide the dumbwaiter itself—add to the feeling of deliberate pressure and make the audience wonder when the tightrope is going to snap.
The play begins with only the lone art deco fixture near the entry door glowing, then fades into lighting that highlights the dinginess of the basement room without distracting from the action on stage. Similarly, sound is fairly unobtrusive with cues hit perfectly and no technical flubs. Pre-show instrumentals walk the line between foreboding and jaunty, and add to the overall atmosphere of the production.
Ben and Gus are costumed in garb reminiscent of a film noir assassin—black tailored suits with white collared shirts and shoulder holsters, and black ties, black suspenders, and black shoes. Intriguingly, the state of the characters' clothing also tells us much about them. Ben's meticulous preoccupation with shoe shining directly contrasts with Gus's somewhat less dapper appearance. Their costumes also show a shift in mind set. When Ben and Gus sit in the room waiting, they wear their collars unbuttoned with no tie. Yet, as the time of their assignment draws near, they begin to uniform themselves, almost as if donning armor for battle. I don't wish to give away anything, but I will say that this becomes even more evident late in the play.
Something else that becomes evident as we move more deeply into Ben and Gus's world—the raw emotional power of Pinter's work. Pinter doesn't just write characters that respond emotionally to their surroundings; rather, he seems to instinctively summon the emotions themselves and instill them into his audience members. If for no other reason than this, it's worth seeing a live production of The Dumb Waiter. Happily, Kitchen Dog Theater's excellent artistic and technical teams make this an ever more appealing option.
THE DUMB WAITER
Kitchen Dog Theater @ The Green Zone, 161 Riveredge, Dallas, TX 75207
Runs through October 10th.
Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 pm, with additional performances on Wednesday at 8:00 pm (9/23 and 10/7) and Sunday at 2:00 pm (9/20 and 10/4).
Regular ticket prices are $20.00-$30.00 for adults, and $15.00-$25.00 for STAGE/KERA/TCG members, students and seniors (65 and better). Pay-what-you-can specials (available to the first 25 patrons) are on Wednesdays (9/23 and 10/7) and Thursdays (9/17, 9/24, 10/1, and 10/8). For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.kitchendogtheater.org or call the box office at 214-953-1055.