If you're a Harold Pinter fan, put on your Nikes and run to the North Carolina Stage Company this weekend to catch Jess Wells' outstanding production of these two one-act plays. If you're not, hurry anyway to catch some truly memorable performances by a group of talented young actors.
Pinter has been called a master of the "comedy of menace," of which The Dumb Waiter serves as an excellent example. The setting is a drab basement room where Ben and Gus, played by Kelly Christianson and Jennifer Croke, wait. The room is empty except for two beds and a dumb waiter. Ben, wearing a gun in a shoulder holster, sits in the chair reading a newspaper while Gus fusses with her shoes, much to Ben's annoyance. Conversation between them is desultory and sporadic, punctuated by long silences.
Of the two, Gus is the garrulous one, by turns curious and mildly complaining, chatting about this and that-a simple and, as is so often the case, an irritating soul. Ben is the taciturn one: nervous, impatient, easily angered. Gradually, through the fits and starts of their dialog, we realize they are hit men-or, given Mr. Wells' imaginative casting, hit women-there to do a job.
As they wait to find out who their target is to be, the dumb waiter begins to function. Requests for food arrive from above. Up and down goes the dumb waiter bringing orders for steak and chips, pudding, tea; soup, liver and onions, jam tart; Greek dishes. Frantically they search for something, anything to appease the order-giver, sending up two biscuits, a bar of chocolate, a half-pint of milk, two tea bags, a cake, a bag of chips Down comes the empty dumb waiter with a request for Chinese food. Through the speaking tube they yell they have no more food. From the other end comes the complaint that the food they sent up was bad: the milk sour, the biscuits moldy, the chocolate melted, the cake stale.
(Ed. note: The ending is a dramatic moment worthy of mention, but if you want to avoid a 'spoiler', skip the next paragraph!)
The final demand, for a cup of tea, leaves them tired and dispirited. Gus fantasizes about the food the unseen order-giver probably has upstairs until Ben pulls herself together and reminds Gus of the job ahead. The two then rehearse the killing. When Gus leaves for the bathroom Ben receives instructions about their victim through the speaking tube. She calls Gus, leveling her gun at the door to the passage. Gus rushes in through that door stripped of her jacket, shirt, and gun. The play ends with the two facing each other.
Ms. Croke was wonderfully wide-eyed and annoying as Gus, and moved about the stage with complete authority. Ms Christianson seemed less comfortable in the role of Ben, evidenced by a certain stiffness, but the final moment of the play was all hers. Watching as her face went from confusion to comprehension before finally hardening into that of a professional killer sent chills up my spine.
The Lover concerns the relationship of a husband, played by Edgar Davis, and his wife, Julia Cunningham, presented over the course of two days, the passage of time marked by a series of blackouts. When we first meet the wife she appears a prim, proper, uptight woman. He ignores, or is oblivious to, her coldness toward him and seemingly has enough warmth and sensitivity to keep the marriage alive. This is all the more remarkable because we learn she has a lover who visits her while he is at work, that he knows it, accepts it, and even encourages it.
She keeps testing the limits of his tolerance. That night when he comes home she still wears the sexy, spike-heeled shoes she wore for her lover. When he notices she quickly changes shoes. She presses him: surely he must have a mistress. No, he says, he has a whore, which isn't the same thing. The next morning, as he gets ready for work, she puts on a provocative, sheer black teddy, which he ignores.
That afternoon her "lover" visits, and turns out to be her husband. Their sexual encounter consists of role-playing: he going from lover to brute to lover; she, from sweet thing to whore to lover. Afterward, the dynamic between them escalates to cruelty with him, as lover, ending the affair. Finally, as the husband, he comes home from work and forbids her to have her lover come to the house.
As he tears away at the fabric of her fantasy she becomes more and more frantic, screaming she is caged-as indeed she will be if he takes away the only avenue she has of sexual release (shades of Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour). Only after she is completely broken, does he give in and allow her to rebuild the fantasy.
Edgar Davis is wonderful as the apparently long-suffering husband whose hidden depths are completely unsuspected. When his sadistic streak emerges at the end it comes as a complete surprise. He is the perfect foil for Julia Cunningham's wife. But the play belongs to Ms Cunningham, whose passionate performance takes the character from the safe harbor of ice queen to the edge of sexual and emotional sanity.
Jess Wells has directed these two pieces with a sure hand and a fine appreciation of the stop-and-go rhythms of Pinter's writing. His pacing sustains the tension and heightens the mystery of the plays, which wind their way to an always surprising conclusion. Don't pass up this opportunity to see these rarely performed short plays; you'll find it a rewarding theatrical experience.