Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dumb Waiter and Celebration - A Theater Review

It was with great enthusiasm and excitement that I greeted the news, earlier this year, that ACT would be producing a Pinter Festival this summer. Despite the best of intentions on my part, I had missed all of the installments of their Pinter Fortnightly series to date and was hoping to be able to, at some point, get a glimpse of the work they were doing with the plays of this seminal playwright. A festival seemed just the thing, and if my introduction to it with these two one act plays is any indication, it is going to be an event Seattle will be talking about for quite some time.

The Dumb Waiter, one of Harold Pinter's earliest plays,is the perfect choice to kick off this festival as it is almost a case study in what lies at the heart of all of Pinter's plays. It is a taut tension filled piece that deals even-handedly with both the banalities as well as the essence of life. Here making tea and deciding the best way to kill someone are discussed with equal import. It straddles the fence perfectly  between gritty realistic drama (that Pinter's self-appointed protege David Mamet took and ran with) and existential mindscapes (that Pinter's acknowledged influence and later friend and colleague Samuel Beckett so often employed). It is darkly funny, even menacing (a favorite word amongst Pinter critics), and challenges its audience to view the world a bit differently by its end.

Darragh Kennan and Chuck Leggett in The Dumb Waiter
Two hit men wait in a room for their next job to arrive. These two roles are played with the perfect combination of light handed physical comedy and pointed penetrating rage by the wonderful talents of Darragh Kennan as Gus and Charles Leggett as Ben. Both men show equal comfort and skill at lounging pensively in a long Pinter silence, as well as quickly exchanging banter back and forth. They and director John Langs make sure that the pace and timing of the play is spot on. I've read this play a number of times and seen it produced before, but ACT's seemingly flawless production, will be the one that lives in my memory from now on.

(For a full disclosure I should mention that I saw these plays in preview, so any critiques I have from here forward could certainly have been addressed by opening night.)

Celebration, one of Pinter's later plays, makes for a very interesting partner with The Dumb Waiter. From a claustrophobic single room with two characters in the first play, we move to a busy restaurant with eleven characters in the second. Where The Dumb Waiter seems to have a tight kinetic energy driving it forward, Celebration has a looser more collage-like feel. Like Pinter's other later works, this play is more confident in its tangents. It takes the characters and audience quickly from point A to point C sometimes never bothering to circle back to B.

Frank Carrado in Celebration
Yet the precision I found so remarkable in the first play, I found to be somewhat lacking in the second. Director Langs here has chosen for his cast of diners to play most of the one act boisterously drunk. This energy tends to muddy moments that call for focus and worse yet, tends to allow the audience to write off the characters' sometimes jarringly odd behavior as simply the drink talking. The audience I was with forgave the characters so much that they were laughing hysterically through most of the show (I know that in most cases this would be a good thing, but it was off here). This seemed to encourage even more broad comedy from the cast. While clearly Celebration is one of Pinter's lighter plays, light for Pinter is still pretty dark and, yes, menacing. This production missed those elements.

That said, the framing of the two pieces with controlled zen nature of Darragh Kennan at the beginning of The Dumb Waiter and then with the final monologue as the "waiter" in Celebration, bookended the evening perfectly and made me eager to come back to check out Old Times and No Man's Land when they join the festival in a few weeks. Congratulations to Kurt Beattie and Frank Corrado for having the courage and drive to bring this festival to Seattle audiences.

The Dumb Waiter and Celebration  play at ACT through August 26. Tickets here.


Set and Staging : I sat at the side of the thrust stage, as did about 1/4 of the audience. The staging on the first play was little tough at times, seeing only the back of one actor's head as he blocked my view of the other actor, but overall passable. The fact that I couldn't really see the dumb waiter or its contents when it opened, which clearly the audience at the front of the thrust could, was a bit distracting.

In Celebration, however, these issues became a bit worse. The biggest challenge of a play like this, from a staging point of view, is that you have 4 diners at a single table who don't get up much during the show. If you sit them traditionally around the table, the audience is going to miss one or two actors for almost the whole show depending on where you are sitting. A tough problem to fix for sure. But the choice here to have all four actors cheated to the upstage part of the table, leaving 1/3 of the table unadorned an unused, crowded the actors together in a way that didn't really make sense within the play. Plus, from my side view, they were often almost lined up in a row where I couldn't really get a good look at any but one of them at a time.

The set for The Dumbwaiter was perfect utilitarian excellence and the use of lighting to punctuate moments in the play, ingeniously effective. Yet the set and costumes for Celebration seemed to make an unnecessary negative judgement on the characters. Though it clearly is supposed to take place in a very nice upscale restaurant, the colors and decor here clearly suggested a restaurant past its heyday. The tackiness and unattractiveness of the diners' atire also made us feel that these people were not to be empathized with but more to be laughed at. It struck me that the play could have been much more affecting if the restaurant resembled one of the finer restaurants down the street from ACT, and if the diners looked liked the well dressed and well educated audience that was watching the show. If so, I believe the laughter that would have been created during the show would have been much more nervous laughter than the almost hooting and hollering I heard.


  1. This popped up on my Google Alerts for ACT. Curious as to who is writing?

    1. I've chosen to remain anonymous for now. I think it helps me write a bit more freely about the shows I see.

  2. An anonymous critical voice does not have a voice. Even an audience member should include his or her name if making a comment on a production. Frankly, with no name attached I have no interest in your opinions.