Written in the late 1950s, between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, Harold Pinter’s one-acter The Dumb Waiter has all the head-scratching mystification of those two masterpieces, but is arguably a lot more accessible. Possibly this is because, on the surface, it’s a comedy crime caper, as two dopey hitmen kill time before a routine wet job, only for an unexpected turn of events to throw a spanner in the works. Whether the play had an influence on the Jules and Vince strand of Pulp Fiction is debatable: certainly it provided the template for Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. (In that film, the two undercover hitmen give themselves the aliases Cranham and Blakely, which happen to be the names of the two actors who starred in a BBC production of The Dumb Waiter.)
Of course, this being a Pinter play, underneath all these enjoyable B-movie shenanigans lurks something far more cryptic – a swirling void of cosmic absurdity, perhaps. Or, as Pinter himself put it (by way of sarcastically appeasing over-intellectualising critics), “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.”
The “weasel” in question here is actually behind the wall, in the guise of a rickety old dumb waiter which suddenly springs into life, bringing orders for extravagant meals to be sent up forthwith. This is particularly perplexing for hitmen Gus (James Loye) and Ben (Howard Rosenstein) as they thought they were in the basement of an empty building. So instead of preparing to off their victim, they have to switch their attention to the impossible task of providing increasingly absurd dinner requests.
On one level, it’s a madcap slice of surrealism straight out of Ionescu, or even Monty Python. On the other (if we might over-intellectualise for a moment), it’s a blackly comic variation on the poet Fulke Greville’s complaint that God has created us sick and commanded us to be well. Faced with an empty kitchen, Gus and Ben are commanded by an invisible boss to rustle up, say, a perfect scampi dinner. (Maybe they’re waiting on Godot?)
But whichever way you interpret it, The Dumb Waiter, as presented by new company Theatre Esperance, is terrific fun, with cracking, pacey routines belying Pinter’s reputation for writing obscure dialogue leaden with pauses. The famous argument over whether you say “light the kettle” or “light the gas” is a particular delight, but the whole play is crammed with relishable turns of phrase (“it’s enough to make the cat laugh”). Rosenstein and Loye are marvellous as the Laurel and Hardy-like Cockney assassins: tough, in-control geezers on the outside, but inwardly being whittled away with existential dread.
As the play opens with Loye’s Gus interminably messing with his shoe and Rosenstein’s Ben glaring with slow-burning exasperation, you know you’re in for a production that’s immersed itself in the telling details. Alison Darcy’s direction gets the tricky timing just right, whether capturing the grinding boredom of pre-job downtime, or bouncing back and forth with the music hall-inspired patter. Fine work too from the design team (Jody Burkholder on lights, Elahe Marjovi on set, Nikita U on sound), which has turned the tiny Mini-Main into a miraculous theatre-machine, replete with evocative dinginess, claustrophobically grimy walls and, of course, the uncanny, unforgettable whoosh and clatter of the dumb waiter itself.
The Dumb Waiter is playing at Mainline Theatre to March 28
Alex Woolcott is a freelance writer based in Montreal