Suspense and intrigue reign supreme at the Unexpected Stage Company’s summer offering of two one-act plays. In some ways, pairing The Dumb Waiter, an early work of Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, with Trifles, first performed in 1916 and based on a real life murder trial, seems curious and incongruous and in other ways perfectly natural. That would also be an apt description of Pinter’s work, and The Dumb Waiter is by far the weightier and better constructed work of the two.
Pinter has a genius for writing authentic dialogue and also the courage to build in pregnant pauses – and it all seems, well… perfectly natural. At the same time, one is led to wonder just what the heck is he getting at? What is the subtext, the deeper meaning, the “raison d’etre” for his writing? If you are counting on an answer from this reviewer, don’t hold your breath.
Two hit men are secluded in a windowless basement in Birmingham, UK, awaiting yet another victim to play out what has been for them a string of murders by the numbers ordered up by the mysterious Mr. Wilson. The conversation appears to be mundane – time for tea but no gas to light the stove, soccer matches and snatches of macabre stories courtesy of the local newspaper interspersed with all manner of questions, some rather existential and some seemingly inconsequential – but be careful. Nothing is quite what it seems with Pinter.
Then curious and quite incongruous things begin to happen – an envelope with matches slid under the door through which they expected their victim to appear, a dumb waiter bringing orders for exotic foods and finally a whistle/tube call system that connects them with someone on the other end of the dumb waiter. It might be the mysterious Mr. Wilson but then again, it might not. The tension begins to mount as they wait for their victim and struggle for ways to satisfy the requests coming first from notes delivered by the dumb waiter and later from whoever is occupying the other end of the call system.
The suspense and intrigue build and build as Gus, very capably played by Matt Oliek and his senior partner, Ben, performed nicely by Christopher Dwyer spin more and more out of control. The counterpoint to their increasing lack of control is a growing propensity for manufacturing certainty where there is none. They make up stories to explain the many vagaries of their situation and stick to them stubbornly.
Both actors do a nice job with the sing song rhythm of the Cockney accent and make great use of its explosiveness when it is called for. Dwyer as Ben is wound up tight while Oliek’s Gus is gregarious yet greatly in need of answers. They play off one another perfectly, a tribute to spot on direction provided by Christopher Goodrich, who, with his wife, Rachel Stroud-Goodrich, are the Co-Producing Artistic Directors for Unexpected Stage.
The friction between Ben and Gus continues to heat up until the climactic final moment of the play. Whether it was a technical glitch or Goodrich just missed it I won’t know without going back for a second look, but that final moment needed to be held in the light so we could better read the surprised expressions on the faces of Ben and Gus before the blackout. Even with that missed opportunity, The Dumb Waiter is solid piece of theatre that delivers on the subtleties and nuances that so many productions miss when they produce a work by Pinter. It is very well done.
Trifles, the second one-act by Susan Glaspell based on a trial she covered as a newspaper reporter (she went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright), is pretty much in keeping with the title – a trifle — especially when held up next to The Dumb Waiter. Well staged (again by Goodrich) and nicely acted most particularly by Heather Davis, Baakari Wilder and Mary Sarah Agliotta, the play revolves around a crime scene where the men bumble around looking for a motive while the women find incriminating evidence. How they find it and what they do with it is what keeps the piece interesting.
oliek and Dwyer take the roles of the bumbling detective and sheriff. Neither seemed particularly comfortable, quite a contrast to their work in The Dumb Waiter. But it didn’t matter a great deal because the heart of this little intrigue is built around the characters portrayed by Davis and Agliotta. Agliotta is particularly effective as the neighbor who knew things were amiss in this household and now regrets not having been a better friend to the woman accused of murdering her husband. Davis, as the wife of the sheriff, at first plays it straight up in support of the law being the law but eventually is won over. Solidarity among the womenfolk carries the day.
It is gratifying to see the Randolph Road Theatre put to good use. It has much to offer as a theatre space for an up and coming company like Unexpected Stage. Here’s hoping they find the wherewithal to make even more use of it. If the quality of acting and directing shown in this pairing of one-acts is a harbinger of things to come, Unexpected Stage Company just might live up to their name and their lofty ambitions.