The Dumb Waiter – A Centre Stage production
by Rory Buccheri
Photo courtesy of Center Stage Theatre Company
Stepping forward from the red curtains of AU Centre Stage, this semester’s production of the Dumb Waiter, starring Arri Smith and David McIvor as the two protagonists Gus and Ben, has managed to light the fire (or, indeed, to light the kettle?) of the Aberdeen audience. Harold Pinter’s comedy, written and performed for the London stage in 1957, has found a new cut and a new location by landing in Aberdeen’s Arts Centre this November.
The stage belongs solely to the two characters, two hired assassins waiting for their next assignment in the basement of an abandoned restaurant – a location that spares them no surprises throughout the evolution of the play.
It is hard not to pay attention to the dramatic pauses and breaths between one line and the other, as the stage is shared by only two actors. All the work is left to them, and it’s up to the players to set up the pace of the game. The chemistry between the actors definitely works: what Arri lacks, David complements, and vice versa.
The act kicks off almost in slow motion, as the audience is given a frame within which to assess the peculiarity of these two individuals: the mastermind, Ben, is absorbed in his newspaper-reading; Gus, on the other hand, has an obsessive thought which he seems unable to shake off. His borderline OCD attitude puts the audience in a hesitant, almost unnerving state. We, as the audience, wait thirstily for Ben’s reaction, for a climax, a sudden retort on his behalf. But the leaf is too green yet; we are left without an openly burst-out laughter climactic moment, yet we gain insight on how the rest of the play is going to unfold and especially how these two characters balance each other’s energy - courting, prancing, just like lions sharing the same cage, never explicitly jumping at each other’s throats.
The pace picks up as we gain an insight into their hesitations, doubts and, in Ben’s case, well-rehearsed steel certainties. It becomes clear it is a masquerade when, on the arrival of a sealed black envelope, he jumps and shakes, demonstrating how tense he is despite the stoic approach he boasts when answering Gus’s questions about their never-ending wait.
The moments of comic relief are masterly played, triggered by the argument over the semantics of ‘light’ or ‘put on’ the kettle; Arri and David are superb at giving this moment the dramatic tension it deserves, persuading the audience of the veracity of their respective beliefs.
Arguably, the overall energy of the play revolves around the construction of witticisms of these two peculiar and deeply-flawed characters. Even when the tension comes from outside (the lift, the bathroom not working, the mysterious letter), the true pace- and place-setters are the two main protagonists with their own conflicts and tensions growing from the inside out.
The title of the play itself deserves attention: does the Dumb Waiter refer to the automatic lift (a ‘dumbwaiter’) that transports their last reserve of food? Or is it the dumb waiter Gus, unaware that he is the target of their assignment? Is it, instead, Ben, failing to bottle his anger and giving away too much to his partner?
The play is at times dawdling, leaving us with just too much time to wonder and to speculate; this contributes, though, to that sour taste that the ending leaves which is, nevertheless, meant to be there. The bomb is not meant to go off, not until the very last breath, and the riddles are meant to dwell in the audience’s mind for a while. If we are looking for a resolution – and we know we are – the answer to the play’s riddles lies, since the very beginning, in the language, in the debates, in Gus’s growing suspicion and restlessness, in Ben’s newspaper digressions, in Gus’s apparently irrelevant questions and finally, in Ben’s unconvincing answers to these questions.