Review: "The Dumb Waiter" at New Haven Theater Company

Noah Golden

  • OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic

New Haven Theater Company’s “The Dumb Waiter” takes place in a dingy cellar room. The brown and beige walls are covered with ripped, faded wallpaper and streaks of what might be mold or water damage or, perhaps prophetically, dried blood. There are two cots equipped with pillows and thin blankets. On the wall sits a hatch leading to the titular device. Who is on the other end, operating the lift and sending down enigmatic orders for exotic foods like scampi, water chestnuts and a purportedly Greek dish called Ormitha Macarounda is unknown. Perhaps it is the mysterious mob boss Wilson who is neither seen or heard but holds the greatest position of power in the entire play. Or maybe not.

What we do know is that this shabby, underground apartment isn’t going to be good news for Ben and Gus, two professional hitmen who must wait, Godot-style, for word about their next job. In the course of this 60-minute one-act, Ben and Gus will argue, chat, wax philosophical, reminisce, read the news and wonder, for the millionth time, when the omnipresent force guiding their life will present his next string of instructions. That is to say, Gus and Ben are all of us.

The success or failure of Harold Pinter’s perplexing play lies in the actors playing Ben and Gus, as their dialogue is all we have to keep us company. Here they are played by Trevor Williams and Erich Greene, a duo that comes across as a British take on Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton but with the personalities switched. Dapper Ben (Williams) is thin and lanky, with hilariously expressive eyes and a hair-trigger temper. Gus, on the other hand, is portly and disheveled, with thick stubble lining his face and the propensity to run his mouth on just about every subject. They are a comedy duo in the long tradition of Laurel and Hardy or Felix and Oscar. But Pinter’s play is never one to rest easily on comedic tropes.

Sure, there are funny moments. A heated exchange over the expression “light the kettle” is downright hysterical and director John Watson gets plenty of comedic mileage out of the intricate rhythms of Pinter’s prose. Unlike NHTC’s previous dialogue-heavy offering, which I called “metronomic in pace,” Watson stealthily handled the tempos and inflections of his two actors with finesse, resulting in a show that never feels too static.

It is a pity then that some of Pinter’s great dialogue is buried under accents that distract rather than add to the atmosphere. Greene’s dialect especially careened from cockney to Liverpudlian to Irish brogue like a tourist on a one-day visa to the UK, which rendered some lines self-conscious and hard to decipher. Bits of Williams’ grumblings were also lost, although his accent stayed much more on track.

New Haven Theater Company’s “The Dumb Waiter” is a very good version of a work that I must admit to finding frustrating. I’ve never much cotton to plays that feel more like literary exploration than human narratives. That is to say, when judging it alongside two works which share a great deal of “The Dumb Waiter’s” DNA, I much prefer Martin McDonagh’s savagely funny and sharp “In Bruges” to Beckett’s famous head-scratcher “Waiting For Godot.” Sacrilege, maybe. But when it comes to Pinter’s contemporaries, authors like Williams and O’Neil are more my cup of tea.

The thing is, “The Dumb Waiter” is a meaty play that takes a few readings and viewings to really soak in. Even then, I was left with vague themes rather than a gut-punch of a thesis. Is Pinter talking about the struggle of the lower-class, constantly working for faceless entities that will ultimately screw them over just for doing their job? Are Ben and Gus two souls lost in limbo who must come to terms with the randomness of their life (and death)? Is this a parable about how lack of communication among modern men can result in deadly consequences? Pinter asks many more questions than he answers.

Yet this incarnation of “The Dumb Waiter” ultimately does what all good theater should. After a brief glimpse into a world very different from my own, I exited NHTC’s English Market building laughing at a few of my favorite bits. But as I left the bitter cold for the comfort of my car and during the half-hour long drive back to the shoreline, I found myself thinking and examination and questioning. Which I’m sure is exactly what Pinter and the NHTC would want.

“The Dumb Waiter” runs through February 10 in New Haven, CT. For more information, visit the New Haven Theater Company’s website