The Dumb Waiter
Loft Theatre, Syracuse Stage
Through Dec. 8
Playwright Harold Pinter sculpted tension. Something was always out there: deadly and unseen, poised to pounce. Syracuse University’s Black Box Players, a student-run experimental theater collective, is staging one of Pinter’s early works, the one-act piece The Dumb Waiter this week at the newly renovated Loft Theatre at Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St. Performances are Thursday, Dec. 6, and Friday, Dec. 7, 8 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 8, 2 and 8 p.m. Admission is free; call 308-1227 or 443-2102 for details.
Pinter took up playwriting in 1957. A British college dropout—he briefly attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London—Pinter wrote poetry and acted before producing his first play, The Room.
The Dumb Waiter, his fourth work, was written in 1960. The play takes place in the basement of a defunct eatery in Birmingham, England. Two assassins—the jittery young Gus and Ben, an old pro—await directions from their unnamed employer.
As they wait, Gus rambles on about a variety of subjects. Does one actually “light a kettle” or the burner on which the kettle sits? Can they catch a football game after the hit? Which sex can better withstand a gun blast? Ben attempts to ignore Gus’ incessant questioning.
The tension ratchets up when a dumbwaiter, a small elevator used by restaurants to haul food from basement kitchens to above-ground dining rooms, crashes down to the basement. There’s a note inside: an order from the wait staff. The notes continue and the two hit men teeter close the edge. Who’s sending these messages? When will their employer call?
Usually, Pinter’s pieces take place in a controlled environment. There’s always a tangible claustrophobic aura about the settings: a one-room apartment (The Room), a basement (The Dumb Waiter), a crowded boarding house (The Birthday Party). Characters dissuade each other from leaving; the door is always shut.
In 1939, Pinter and his Jewish parents fled London to escape possible Nazi occupation. This experience, along with witnessing the aftermath of the Blitzkrieg, informed Pinter politically and artistically. From then until his death, the playwright would remain wary of bureaucracy—legitimized unchecked power, a tool of oppression. Similar forces reign over the characters in his works.
Silence or a lack of seemingly earnest dialogue is another Pinteresque characteristic. Existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett was a great friend and mentor to Pinter, and this relationship is apparent in the absurdity of his dialogue. Pinter’s characters say nothing of import because the silence says everything.
The Black Box Players are rolling out four different casts—two male and two female—for this production. The set, designed by Jenifer Medina-Gray, is detailed (aged fixtures, a sturdy, functioning dumb waiter) and sparse. Pink Floyd also plays a central role; tracks off Dark Side of the Moon (1973, EMI) mirror the menacing atmosphere in which Ben and Gus exist. “On the Run,” “Time” and “The Great Gig in the Sky” serve as bookends.
Pinter continued to produce ground-breaking work until the 1990s. Betrayal (1978), which was made into a critically lauded film starring Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons, is probably his best known work. Pinter also began screenwriting and directing plays. In 2005 he received a Nobel Peace Prize for literature.
Pinter, who died of cancer in 2008, left behind a healthy catalog and The Dumb Waiter
is an essential piece of his legacy, a career-defining sort of work.
The Black Box Players' production provides a fitting tribute.