Directed by Charlie Marie McGrath
Featuring Shane Michael Murphy & David Winkler
Presented by Proud Kate Theatre Project
Playing at The Alley Stage
At the start of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter–the playwright’s skeletal 1957 one-act about two hired killers held up in a tiny lodging room–one of the men reads aloud from his newspaper how an old man crossing the street tried to crawl beneath a ‘lorry’ and was run over. It’s perhaps meant to be a joke at the old man’s expense. A derisive laugh at the codgers stupidity.
The other fellow in the room doesn’t take it as such. Evincing horrified concern, he asks ‘Who advised him to do a thing like that?’ And suddenly a flippant jokes about one man’s stupidity deepens into conspiracy, introducing some baleful outside influence. A shadowy presence whose identity or intentions cannot be readily known. The question is prescient, to say the least.
For when it comes to fully realizing the ominous violence lingering always at the margins of this play, one could certainly do worse than with Proud Kate Theatre Project’s current production, now on view at The Alley Stage. Under the direction of Charlie Marie McGrath, actors David Winkler and Shane Michael Murphy deliver two intimately compelling performances, moving together with the rhythmic pull of a yo-yo between the easygoing and the emotionally fraught.
Winkler and Murphy play Ben and Gus, two Beckettian clowns turned East London gunmen, who linger in the existential hell that is their tiny flat waiting for the order to go out and kill. Containing little more than two beds, the sparse room is buttressed on one side by a sliding metal door leading out to the kitchen and on the other by a wood door leading…well, we’re not quite sure where.
Conversation between Ben and Gus is at first sparse and discomfiting and digressive: non-events from the daily paper, a heated argument over the proper idiomatic expression for making tea, the Tottenham Hotspurs. But Winkler and Murphy for the most part have a solid handle on the material, together extracting from Pinter’s muted and oblique dialogue faint semblances of a real relationship between the two hit men. In fact, their solid chemistry fortuitously underscores The Dumb Waiter with a keen sense of shared dramatic stakes, keeping the audience emotionally invested despite the play’s austere tone.
But tensions congeal between Ben and Gus after an anonymous being from above starts dropping cryptic food orders down a rickety old dumb waiter. The play thereafter alternates rapidly between hilarity and terror as the two hit men struggle to make sense of this wildly random act, sending up what few food staples they have in their possession without any clear pretext to do so. The end result is a shrewdly well-observed exploration of the limits of self-knowledge and the utter futility of our actions.
My only complaint is that the occasional physical skirmish between Ben and Gus (a slap here, a push there) might have been more convincingly executed. Director McGrath has succeeded admirably in luring us into Pinter’s world of indistinct dangers, crafting ominously atmospheric scenes at a clipping pace. But there’s nothing like a lackluster fight scene to make an audience disinvest, especially when doing Pinter, where the threat of imminent harm needs to be believed in wholeheartedly.
That said, it’s rare to encounter a production of Pinter that so artfully sustains its claustrophobic intimacies. The moment that heavy metal door shuts, locking us into the Alley Stage with two seemingly inert corpses, we sense we are in for a thrill. Thankfully, Proud Kate does not disappoint.
Reviewed by Anthony Mangini
Reviewed Sunday, August 18th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 55 minutes with no intermission.
The Dumb Waiter runs until September 1st, 2013. The Alley Stage is located at 4147 N. Broadway. For tickets call (224) 392-2718 or visit http://www.proudkate.moonfruit.com/#/home/4572379914/Proud-Kate-Launches-New-Site/4521566. For more information and reviews, check out its Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-dumb-waiter/6522/.