Written By Harold Pinter
Directed by Zeljko Djukic
At TUTA Studio Theatre
Extended to September 1! See details below.
I am His Majesty’s dog at Kew.
Pray tell me, sir,
whose dog are you?
“Engraved on the Collar of a Dog, Which I Gave to His Royal Highness”
– Alexander Pope
Earlier this year, Sam Harris released the controversial book Free Will. Contained therein was a sentence that could be the moral for the The Dumb Waiter: “A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.” In Harold Pinter’s 1957 one act, the ‘strings’ are literal—the chains of the eponymous mechanism. Like a god from on high, it dispatches absurd demands and requires sacrifices from the two men who wait at the receiving end. Waiter is a haunting look at the devices that underly our lives and our complacency—or lack thereof—in obeying their inexplicable control.
Assassins in the employee of a shadowy organization that is only implied, Gus (Trey Maclin) and Ben (Andy Hager) await their next target in a sparse basement room. Like so much of their lives, what town they are in, what day it is and the general happenings of the outside world remain a mystery. No window reveals a landscape to clue them in, and the soul-crushing boredom of waiting to dispatch a soul is getting to Gus. He’s the junior member to Ben, and far more skittish than his senior. While Ben casually hems and haws over this and that tragedy to be endlessly gleaned from a sensationalist newspaper, Gus begins the unthinkable. He questions the nature of those that command him.
The odd couple’s claustrophobia is interrupted by unseen hands that deliver various portents to be augured in vain by the less than astute pair. A dumb waiter begins delivering inexplicable notes much to their surprise. Tension erupts as each one applies their limited logic to deciphering the messages’ intent. Ben is the truer sociopath, initially unwavering in his desire to please his invisible puppeteers. Gus is flustered and querulous, much to the ire of his superior. Unlike Ben, Gus can clearly see the man who controls him, and as a dog gains all his confidence from his master’s assuredness, it wavers as Ben’s self control is shaken. As the minutes tick by, the two grow ever closer to the core of the mystery they have been blindly stumbling towards.
Much will be said of the device that TUTA is employing to stage such an important work of the 20th century. “Standing room only” is the only way the show can be viewed, as the two killers are observed by standing and peering over a ledge into the the small basement room. It’s a devise rife with symbolism: are the two gladiators in an arena? rats in a lab experiment? is the view that of an omnipresent Big Brother, putting the audience in the location of a security camera? Certainly it’s the first and perhaps the last production I’ll ever see that breaks the fifth wall as Ben and Gus stare despondently back from their abyss as we stare into it. Rather than being a gimmick as so many devices, this adds another surreal dimension to an already layered symbolist work.
As the infamous duo, Maclin and Hager have a nervy chemistry that’s right at home in this paranoid production. Their British accents are honest but not unintelligible. Under Djukic’s steady direction their chemistry brews and boils as understated opposites—friendly as professional courtesy dictates but always with a sense of the vicious just below the surface. Darkly humorous, Pinter’s pointed dialogue and deliriously demented situation leaves one a dervish whirling into the outer world at show’s end. Waiter accomplishes this in just an hour, giving the proceedings a breathless intensity.
Though the mechanical device of the pulley and door at the center of this production has long since fallen from favor in the establishments of the rich, the habit of those in power to separate themselves from those they control has never left us. This is human nature: in the famous “trolley problem,” 90% of people can throw a switch to save five people by killing one, but cannot push one on a track to save the same five. The difference is separation. Just one degree of removal (in this case, a switch) is all it takes to be able to distance ourselves from our ethics. Turn a trolley into a pulley and there you have it: a neatly summarized microcosm of the systems of inscrutable and invisible control that affect us all. TUTA’s interpretation brings Pinter’s indelible dumb waiter to smart new life and a new century where old natures are still firmly entrenched.
Date Reviewed: July 27, 2012
At TUTA Studio Theatre, 2010 W Fulton Ave, Chicago, IL; call 1.800.838.3006; running time is 65 minutes with no intermission.
UPDATE: The Dumb Waiter has been extended to September 1 with a revised schedule as follows:
Thursdays, August 9, 16, 23, and 30 ALL AT 9:00pm (please note that this has been changed from the earlier start time of 8:00pm)
Fridays, August 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 at 8:00pm
Saturdays, August 4, 11, 18, 25 and September 1 at 5:00pm AND 8:00pm