Let’s talk about absurdity. Most who hear this word conjure up images synonymous with insanity, foolishness, and incongruity. However, for our purposes, the word relates to the Theatre of the Absurd, a subsection of plays predominately from the late 1950’s which branch off from Albert Camus’ philosophy of the Absurd, humanity’s fruitless search for purpose and clarity in a world devoid of reason and communication. Not that this is a far stretch from insanity, foolishness, and incongruity, but these works are often filled with characters trapped in hopeless scenarios as the tone shifts from menacing and bleak to comedic and Vaudevillian at a moment’s notice. Theatre of the Absurd often leaves audiences with more questions than answers, but it’s only natural for such productions. What value can one ascribe to truth and certainty in a world devoid of reason? The questions one asks of the plot and of themselves through viewing the production outweigh any answers that could be given. This breakdown of logic and communication is common in most of the quintessential absurdist plays, such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, and, our subject for today, The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter.
The Dumb Waiter portrays two hit-men waiting in a windowless basement to learn their next assignment from their boss while a dumbwaiter delivers them mysterious notes from upstairs. What follows is a portrait of two men trapped by an encroaching sense of dread as they await their target’s arrival.
Much like Waiting for Godot, The Dumb Waiter involves a lot of waiting. This was immediately apparent upon entering the theatre to see Ken Webster (Ben) and Jason Phelps (Gus) silently resting on their respective cots as the audience filled took their seats. In place of a curtain speech or even a notification to silence our phones we were greeted by the slow fading of music, a slight change of lights, and another moment’s pause before the play officially began in silence. An excellent start.
The production throughout was full of subtle touches by the design crew that added greatly to the atmosphere. Mark Pickell’s scenic design excelled once again for the barren basement. The overall set consisting of bare walls stained with abandonment was fittingly bleak for The Dumb Waiter yet it was the subtle touches, such as the wall outlets being British as opposed to American, which stood out for me. Particularly, Gus’ half of the room (most notably his poorly made bed) was messier than his senior partner’s half, telling much about the two men before the first line is spoken. Similarly, Cheryl Painter’s costume design reflects Ben and Gus’ personalities with a light touch; both men wear identical suits yet Gus is almost always short an article of clothing or two compared to Ben. It’s these easy-to-miss visuals that I truly appreciate in design; they are constantly in front of you yet natural enough to not be blatantly obvious.
Of course all of these subtleties depend greatly on the performances of The Dumb Waiter’s two actors. Thankfully Webster and Phelps are a perfect duo for Pinter’s “comedy of menace”, as drama critic Irving Wardle coined in regards to Pinter’s body of work. Webster remains steely-eyed and unquestioning in opposition to Phelps’ restless and inquisitive nature. It is apparent upon the arrival of the dumbwaiter’s first note that both men sense something surreal and dangerous surrounding them and they act appropriately, Webster by aiming to please the powers that be and Phelps by questioning their every move. This is emphasized further as Webster begins to lose his certainty in the face of Phelps’ ever-growing agitation and intensity. Furthermore, both actors have mastered the art of filling each pause and silence with more communication between them than is said outright. As dramaturg Rebecca Worley wrote in the production’s program, “[t]he pause… holds within it all the violence of what Pinter’s characters will not say.” Despite all of Webster and Phelps’ frivolous banter, both men know the certainties of their situation. It is apparent on their faces.
For years I have wanted to see a professional production of The Dumb Waiter, and I am more than satisfied with Mark Pickell’s outstanding work. Capital T’s latest production will entertain theatergoers and lovers of absurdity alike. Full of menace and wit, The Dumb Waiter is another success for both Capital T Theatre and Hyde Park Theatre. See it while you still can.
Capital T Theatre’s The Dumb Waiter continues playing at the Hyde Park Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm until November 21st.