Ridiculous. Silly. Menacing. Scary. Surreal. Existential. Eerie. Weird. Absurd. These are some words that come to mind when one first experiences the works of Nobel Prize winning British playwright, Harold Pinter. Known for several entries into the canon of Western Theatre such as The Room, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming, perhaps one of his more relatively accessible plays is the ever-witty The Dumb Waiter.
Written in 1957, The Dumb Waiter tells the short tale of two men, Ben and Gus, in a windowless basement in Birmingham. In this windowless basement, Ben and Gus are waiting for instructions to do a “job.” Their only interaction is with one another and a mysterious offstage “other” who communicates via the titular dumbwaiter. To spill more of the plot would be a grave disservice, though context is essential for fruitful engagement. Pinter was one of a number of playwrights who grew disillusioned with the world at the end of the Second World War and with the horrors of the atomic age burned into the hollows of recent memory. Pinter and his ilk—including Beckett, Ionesco, Stoppard, Havel, Sartre, Dürrenmatt, Albee and others—came to a startling realization that in a world where millions die for the whims of a few and mass destruction beyond comprehension was possible, human life—indeed humanity itself—was unimportant. The machinations of the world seemed to be random and without reason. Such a worldview ran so counter to contemporary philosophy that it could only be given one label: absurd. Indeed, these artists began to tell stories that reflected this new status quo, and these plays became part of a theatrical movement known as Theatre of the Absurd. It is into this context that The Dumb Waiter is born.
Currently playing at Capital T Theatre in Austin, TX starring Ken Webster and Jason Phelps and directed by Mark Pickell (all of whom have won numerous theatre awards in Austin and elsewhere), The Dumb Waiter seems just as poignant as it did over fifty years ago. The modern quotidian lifestyle can often seem boring, aimless, or without meaning. On buses, subways, elevators, escalators, and sidewalks; in kitchens, living rooms, classrooms, pressrooms; we are glued to technology, and increasingly the digital realm is replacing genuine human interaction. Set in the late 50’s, there is minimal technology to distract our characters, but they similarly whittle away the time whilst waiting for something more, something that seems always just out of reach. Ken Webster’s Ben finds that something is his next job. All he does is focused on completing his current job and accepting the next one. His partner Gus, with a strong performance by Jason Phelps, seems more interested in getting answers to his questions. Ben’s blind acceptance of authority clashes electrifyingly with Gus’ search for the truth with potentially calamitous results.
The Capital T’s treatment of the piece may be fairly traditional in its presentation, but director and scenic designer Mark Pickell’s stage complements the unease generated by Pinter’s dialogue (or lack thereof) to such a degree that the basement becomes a third character itself with its own simple eccentricity and complex mystery. Indeed, Pickell’s production brings the text to such life that in its staging it almost feels like a brand new play. When giving this play a read it seems weird, but captivating. This production is an uncomfortable laugh riot that is claustrophobic but incessantly engaging. Catch it until November 21. Thursday – Saturday, 8PM in Austin’s Hyde Park Theatre located at 511 W 43rd St.