First and foremost, Harold Pinter was, and is, an actor. That’s why he writes so uncommonly well for them, rather than merely providing mouthpieces for authorial ideas. Really strong actors seize upon the subtext coursing through the famous pauses, turning the sometimes frustratingly elliptical writing into powerfully resonant drama. Secondly, his plays are funnier than many piously reverential productions mistakenly interpreted. Both those determining factors are brought vividly to life in Harry Burton’s ideally cast, exacting production of “The Dumb Waiter.”
Unseen in the West End in more than 40 years, Pinter’s terse but trenchant two-hander, written in 1957, is set in a dingy basement beneath a cafe. On two rusty, rumpled single beds opposite each other on the back wall of Peter McKintosh’s evocative set lie Ben (Jason Isaacs oozing malevolence beneath steel-rimmed glasses) and Gus (Lee Evans). And even before a word is spoken, Burton whips up the essential aura of suspense.
Watchful Ben is reading the newspaper. While he’s seemingly relaxed, the way he precisely and aggressively shakes the pages makes it clear he’s nothing of the sort. Inside, he’s coiled tight as a spring, his eyes furiously darting across to round-shouldered Gus who, from the way he’s initially baffled by his own surroundings and mood, is quite clearly not the brightest of sparks.
Blithely and winningly dim, Gus is nevertheless meticulous. A clown in the best sense, Evans turns the putting on and lacing up of his shoes into a silent-comedy routine worthy of Harold Lloyd minus the glasses. The absurdly slow lift of his foot and the cross between his puzzlement and pragmatism — he’s very taken with the crockery which will help him make a good cup of tea — become ever funnier as witnessed by Ben, a man of towering and terrifying impatience.
Arguing fatuously about cigarettes, biscuits and stories in the newspaper, the two of them are, to a degree, just passing the time. But it’s abundantly clear they are waiting for something. News? Instructions? Only when Ben suddenly responds to an envelope slipped under the door by whipping out a gun does it become clear they aren’t just up to some dodgy deal: They’re hit men.
At this point, the atmosphere in the auditorium darkens from suspicion to Pinter’s trademark menace. In a harsh, deep growl almost uncannily similar to Pinter’s own, Isaacs’ dominant Ben wields power over whiny, bumbling Gus.
Yet their power-balance — a perennial Pinter theme — is suddenly thrown into doubt. With the violent, thunderous screech from Matt McKenzie’s chilling sound design, a dumb waiter (a device for carrying plates between floors) crashes in. From there on in, the stakes climb ever higher as the unseen management above makes ever more absurd food requests that the men fail to fulfill.
The key to Burton’s production is its unpredictability. Rather than indicating or over-emphasizing themes, he encourages his actors to play moment to moment. Laugh-aloud character observation rubs shoulders with nastiness creeping up through the play like a bad smell.
At 55 minutes, the evening is short, but Burton’s welding of cast to text ensures that right up to the unexpected denouement, Pinter’s engrossing guessing game is surprisingly satisfying.