Have you ever gotten stuck in a dingy basement without even a cup of tea to quench your thirst? Service these days just isn’t what it used to be.
That’s the plight of the two hit men in Harold Pinter’s absurdist comedy-drama “The Dumb Waiter,” a trim and tidy production that is being streamed live by the Old Vic Theater in London.
In “The Dumb Waiter,” one of Pinter’s early comedies of menace, as the critic Irving Wardle called them, the two men sit idling in a basement room of what was apparently a former cafe. They’re waiting, Godot-style, on orders for their next job, making small talk that highlights their differences. Ben (David Thewlis) opts to follow procedure, though he’s coy when discussing the details with his partner. Gus (Daniel Mays), on the other hand, has his doubts about their occupation and the way they do things. He wishes for less seedy locations, more clarity on the jobs and better hours. And he has many questions. When the pair inexplicably start getting very specific food requests via a dumbwaiter, the job suddenly changes.
The Old Vic’s production of the 50-minute one-act play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, is as polished as an assassin’s gun. Well, maybe not Gus’s, since Ben scolds his partner for his grubby-looking firearm. Appearances are important to Ben, after all, and, this being a Pinter play, so are rituals. Ben is inflexible and exacting, resolved to the simple order of their usual assignments. Gus is more circumspect and increasingly uneasy about his occupation.
Hyemi Shin’s set design — a gray, lifeless room with two beds — feels appropriately bleak and isolating. Waiting, as if trapped, in a room until you’re given the OK to leave? It sure felt all too familiar to me. The grave confines of the men’s basement room seem to suggest a space where anything can happen — from a murder to a series of communications delivered by a dumbwaiter.
And that small elevator for food is a perfect vehicle for Pinter’s quirky doses of comedy: It descends from the heavens (or, rather, a top floor), deus ex machina-style, bringing messages that change the characters’ relationships to each other and totally redirect the action of the story. And Thewlis and Mays’s characters grow progressively agitated: Ben turns more hostile and resolute, while Gus becomes more anxious and doubtful.
The symbolic meaning behind this play isn’t so easy to decipher. Is this a philosophical statement on two antithetical approaches to life, a parable about our responses to order and chaos? Or is this political, a story about what happens when you fall in or out of line with an institution like, say, the government? Or does the play exist in — to steal the name of another Pinter work — some kind of surreal no man’s land, a cyclical purgatory where the two men relive this same situation?
I’d prefer to hedge my bets and say it can be a little of all three. Pinter’s texts so often make the space for several interpretations at once, even if they seem to contradict one another. And yet in this perfectly effective production I wondered if the play lacked some stronger sense of a perspective — whether there wasn’t enough space given for the possibility of surprise. Because chances are you’ve already guessed how this one ends. The dumbwaiter interrupts the hit men’s mundane chatter but doesn’t veer the production off course from its clear road map to the conclusion.
Though it’s a small complaint, because even for its mild predictability, this production of “The Dumb Waiter” makes a presentable and enjoyable feast of Pinter’s work. Grab your gun: Dinner is served.
The Dumb Waiter
Through July 10; oldvictheatre.com. Running time: 50 minutes.