Fans of Harold Pinter are sure to be interested in Proud Kate Theatre Project’s stripped-down production of “The Dumb Waiter,” currently playing at The Alley Stage in Buena Park. This hour-long play is a latter day take on the “Waiting for Godot” scenario. Here, Ben (David Winkler) and Gus (Shane Michael Murphy)—hired killers—languish in a safe house awaiting their imminent assignment. As in “Godot” though, no one comes, allowing Pinter’s characters to wander into absurd and existential realms as they ponder their increasingly strange predicament.
Though nothing much happens, the incidental dialogue pays homage to Beckett. This is understandable considering that “The Dumb Waiter” was written in 1957, only four years after the 1953 premiere of “Waiting for Godot.” But “The Dumb Waiter” also prefigures the loopy and humanizing digressions of Tarantino’s bad guys, or Tony Soprano and his lost boys in their mobster strip-bar club houses.
Boys will be boys, and here too the power dynamic between Ben and Gus plays a role as the two actors circle each other, sparring and posturing with male banter that becomes increasingly nonsensical as the play develops. And when the titular dumbwaiter cranks up to deliver a food order to their secret basement hideout (an obviously defunct café), this really sends them over the brink, pushing their bizarre situation to its eventual taut conclusion.
As it stands, Proud Kate’s admirably spare version of “The Dumb Waiter” is an enjoyable one-act, a tribute to the Pinter canon and a winningly absurd existential caper. Unfortunately, at this early stage, this production is unable to achieve the tremendous tension necessary to create a truly menacing conflict, though one can imagine it finding its rhythm, power and balance over time.
As Gus, Murphy looks every bit the Irish national, and is energetic and masterful with Pinter’s dialogue. And Winkler’s Ben is his amusingly blase’ and pedantic alpha male foil. Both actors muster a decent English accent that neither dominates nor offends, and as opposite character types they are appropriately and effectively cast, however Gus’ climactic breakdown comes as too much of a surprise because the stakes never seem as nerve-bendingly high as they should.
One can easily see “The Dumb Waiter” as a tour de force acting exercise or vanity project for old dogs and character actors such as Robert De Niro or Harvey Keitel (a 1987 Robert Altman production featured John Travolta and Tom Conti), but in this age of NSA surveillance and the technological matrix as the final, regulable frontier, the play itself is perhaps a bit of a chestnut. Still, the alley staging, with the seats on either side of the set, is a great, intimate way to see Chicago theater: ringside. And the authentic period costumes and set combined with the understated sound and lighting design allow the audience to focus on Pinter’s wry dialogue and the up-close-and-personal performances. (Kaelyn Storme)
Proud Kate Theatre Project at the Alley Stage, 4147 North Broadway, (224)392-2718. $25. Through September 1.