Absurd surfaces

Feb 16, 2000 at 12:00 am

Searching for hidden meanings in Harold Pinter’s plays is tempting but misguided. Critics and academics expend a good deal of energy looking for something that, more often than not, is staring them in the face.

That’s not to suggest that the British playwright’s works lack depth; far from being superficial, they often reveal human folly using the simplest and most direct means. In Pinter’s world, things often are really what they seem. Divining obscure meanings, symbolism and psychological levels in Pinter’s oeuvre is to miss his point. He unveils human stupidity and absurdity with naked simplicity – and his unsparing assault is unnerving, not to say quite funny.

In the Theatre Company’s production of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and More ... at University of Detroit Mercy, Pinter’s hilariously menacing drama unfolds with diamond-bright clarity. In this largely entertaining evening, the one-act play, The Dumb Waiter, is paired with four brief sketches, which accounts for the "More ..." in the title.

Director David Regal captures the staccato rhythm of Pinter’s pared-down language, but more satisfyingly, he gets the nimble wit and wry tone down pat. Mark Choinski’s scaled-down sets are fitting, too. To be sure, not all of the cast performs with uniform adroitness. Some performers seem more keyed in to Pinter’s minimalist sense of ironic humor than others.

In the first sketch, "Interview," Dax Anderson’s dry, jaded delivery is right on the mark as a pornographic bookseller being interviewed by a reporter (Beth Short) on why business has dipped around Christmas. He answers the reporter’s vacuous questions as he wearily takes down Christmas decorations in his shop. We soon learn that he resents his customers – not for their lubricious appetites, but for their leftist politics. If this little skit seems grotesque, that’s just the point. Pinter is simultaneously skewering the puddle-deep questions that often pose as journalism, while attacking how people form their ridiculously narrow judgments.

An even more bizarre exchange takes place in the last sketch, "Applicant." A man (Drew Parker, who needs to refine his English accent) cheerfully enters an office for a job interview. He finds himself answering irrelevant questions from an arrogant battle-ax (superbly played by Jessica Cloud). She even subjects him to electric shock. The comedy here is that, instead of leaving, the applicant continues to answer her rude inquiries while acquiescing to the jolts of pain. Although the sketch appears outlandish, it isn’t really. People regularly allow themselves to be hurt and intimidated by authority figures.

In "That’s Your Trouble," a fashion photographer and a model engage in an inane conversation that boils over into a polemical tempest. When they see a kook wearing a sandwich board proclaiming the end of the world, the model insists that carrying the board causes a backache, while the photographer holds that it results in a headache. As these two prattle on, we realize that the only sane one in the skit is the doomsayer. The actors, though, are a bit too timid in projecting their rage. Their argument should reach a fever pitch, underscoring the absurdity of their interaction.

The weakest sketch is "Trouble in the Works," in which factory employees are suddenly discontented about the products they make. However, this slip is attributable more to Pinter’s momentary stumble in creativity than to any weaknesses on the actors’ parts.

The Dumb Waiter, which Pinter wrote in 1957 but wasn’t produced until 1960, follows the four sketches. It revolves around two hired assassins, Gus and Ben, who are waiting for their next assignment. While they sit in a sordid basement room, these terrorists are being terrorized by unknown sources.

Mysterious orders for food appear in the dumb waiter chute. An enigmatic envelope appears under the door. And most baffling, why does the toilet run at inappropriate times? Tension increases when Gus begins to have qualms about their vocation. Ben is a conformist, unquestioningly taking orders. Gus is beginning to rebel and must be punished. Their conversation provokes increasing agitation, with an apparent murder at the conclusion.

James Mio and Bryan Barter play their parts with appropriate swagger and reveal an appreciation for the way Pinter uses silence (known as "the Pinter pause") to heighten the drama.

Like the sentiments provoked in a Chekhov play, we don’t know whether to cry or laugh. In Pinter’s universe, where reality and unreality are indistinguishable, you have to do both.

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