The Dumb Waiter
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
October 13, 2011
It's interesting how plays written in the past half century can already feel like period pieces. Consider the reviews of the Pearl's current remount of The Bald Soprano, many of which suggest that very tag. It isn't hard to understand why this happens—these "theatre of the absurd" plays have been so produced and dissected that it's hard to recapture the sense of spontaneity and surprise that made them famous.
So no matter what else, the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO)'s current production of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter is successful in feeling fresh and contemporary. Part of that is due to the casting of Asians—NAATCO's mission is not to "Asianize" classic theatre but rather to perform it on its own terms, albeit with Asian performers. So while the ethnic casting doesn't comment on the show (that's a good thing here), it does broaden its context and divorce us from the picture of Pinter's claustrophobic play that otherwise might limit its effect.
The play, first performed in 1960, is almost more of a concept than a story. Two British hit men kill time in a basement room with no windows while waiting for their superior to pass down information on their mark. To complicate matters, a dumb waiter in the upstage wall keeps rumbling and delivering food orders that the men have no way of fulfilling.
It's a strange and mesmerizing work that operates on two intertwining levels: as a clown show and as an atmospheric, menacing meditation of the sort Pinter excelled at in his early phase. In terms of the former, the NAATCO production is a great success. The two performers—Louis Ozawa Changchien as Gus and Stephen Park as Ben—have a great rapport that does a lot to help the show feel fresh. They inhabit the period believably, aided by their accents and costumes, but their best work comes from their comedy. The characters are broadly drawn, Ben a composed, stoic professional and Gus a frenetic, chatty oaf. We presume easily enough that when on the job, they're both frightening, but trapped together for a long time, the character conflicts engender a silliness that these performers really latch onto. I've rarely heard this much laughter in a Pinter production, and it admirably was not forced but instead was mined from the text.
It's in terms of the menace that the production never quite captures the play's depths. Part of the work's profundity is the presence of this offstage authority that manipulates its underlings through seemingly innocuous games and taunts. The play eschews simple allegory, but at the same time these elements escalate towards an ambiguous yet unsettling conclusion. There are certainly moments where Park and Changchien suggest some of this menace—for instance, the exchange over Ben stopping the car in the road the night before is suitably unsettling. But in general, the non-stop pit-pat comic rhythm of the dialogue sort of undercuts the sense of some greater threat operating. As a result, the play's final moment falls a bit flat.
This should not serve as discouragement from using this production to either introduce yourself to this seminal work or enjoy it as a Pinter fan. There is certainly something exciting about seeing this work realized with gusto, and what's more, it's part of an enjoyable evening. Each night, the show features a "curtain raiser" performance of a Pinter short, as well as live music and live production sound effects by Minq Vaadka (also known as Adam W. Cochran). Even if you might giggle more than shudder, this production is admirable work by a clearly committed crew on a great play.