Intense, Satiric 'Waiter' Carried By Strong Acting

"The Dumb Waiter" by Harold Pinter At the Loeb Experimental Theatre through July 16

I needed a stiff drink after the Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre's presentation of Harold Pinter's play, "The Dumb Waiter." With remarkable restraint, Aaron Zelman and Mark Fish (the two characters Gus and Ben, respectively) pulled off what easily could have been a flat, boring piece of comedy. Under the direction of Chris Scully, they brought subtlety and nuance to the characters, fleshing out the obscure, ambiguous script to produce suspense and intensity.

We encounter Gus and Ben in the room where they remain throughout the one-act play. They are in a boarding house in Buckingham, England, waiting for their next "job." The way they are dressed in suit pants, their shirts untucked, their ties and coats laying around the room, they could be two travelling salesmen anywhere in the world. As the play continues we come to realize that they are not pedalling a good, but a service. And that service is killing. And we see them while they wait.

Pinter produces a modern-day satiric comedy with this setting, pointing out the rampant nature of and numbing feeling which accompanies death. The ironic tone of the play is set with Ben's commentary about what he is reading in the newspaper. During the first few minutes of the play, we see Gus trying to tie his shoe while Ben fervently peruses the paper. Every so often Ben will throw the paper down in disgust, sigh, moan or scream and pick it up and continue reading. After the third or fourth angry outburst like this, Gus asks Ben what he's reading about. He goes on to tell the story of an 87-year-old man run over by a bus. Then he tells how two children killed a cat. "It's enough to make you wanna puke!" is one of Ben's final comments about one story.

Zelman delivers a very tight performance throughout the play. His facial expressions show the ignorance, earnestness and anger of his character. Essentially the play revolves around Gus and his constant waffling on about where they are going, whether there's football match to be seen, etc. etc. With his sincere stupidity, Gus probes into many different issues, sometimes answering his own questions, other times getting short, petulant answers from Ben.

Zelman knows that Gus is not going to set the world on fire with his intellect, but he feels. For this reason, he plays him with the utmost earnestness. He never lets a furrowed brow clear into enlightenment, but instead remains serious about what he is saying. This makes the humor of Pinter's words even more pointed. Zelman never gives in to the joke, but rides the satiric and ironic tone of his monologues until the horror and pain of them forces the audience to laugh. It is nice to see someone who has camped it up on the Pudding stage, show the wide range of his talent with his tight hold on the part of Gus.

Fish plays the hot-tempered Ben with the explosiveness it requires. Unlike Zelman, however, he is not able to maintain the serious and earnest tone throughout his part. One reason for this is that his part calls on him to be the leader of the two of them. Ben reports to the "boss," Wilson. He calls the shots. He knows when they should arrive for a hit and when they should lay low and wait. Ben is very similar to Joe Pesci's character in "GoodFellas," but what we see are strains of Fish's former comedic roles seeping into his portrayal of Ben.

In one scene where he is trying to convince Gus to check out where some noise is coming from, he waves his arms and stiffens his body, exaggerrating what should be a sly, tenacious and carefully forceful motion of convincing. During the last scene with the microphone that appears in the room, Ben is told their target is arriving. Fish's eyes instantly grow large and round then return to their normal state as he gains his confidence. Again these motions are too exaggerated, he's too surprised. A real professional hitman would be able to cover it up. But Ben is supposed to be the part of the team who thinks. He doesn't feel lost like Gus, he doesn't allow the confines of the room to depress or upset him. Instead, he channels his emotion as anger about people he doesn't even know but only reads about.

These two strong performances were guided by director Chris Scully. Scully offered direction which gave insights into the characters personalities before they spoke a word. The first new silent minutes have Gus attempting to tie his shoe while Ben reads the paper. Here, in my opinion, is some of the best direction of the entire play.

Although we cannot see Zelman's face throughout part of his shoe-tying fiasco, we understand what this whole thing is supposed to communicate. The shoe tying is taken further when Gus finds a peice of cardboard in one shoe and an old pack of cigarettes stuffed into the other one. This scene creates the picture of Gus as a version Lenny from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

The ending of the play is left ambiguous. Gus and Ben are waiting on their victim to arrive, but one of them gets in the way. In the end we are left hanging, we do not know who, or if, anyone is killed. It is likely that Fate, the boss, or whoever has turned on Gus. This innocent man may fall victim to the evil which he has sensed but cannot find the words to explain. It may be that he, and not the old elevator shaft with its moveable shelf which sends the message of death, is the actual dumb waiter, stupidly waiting to die.