Chris Petty & Ben Unwin in The Dumb Waiter.
Photo-The Alley Theater
Ruffian on the Stair by Joe Orton
The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The Alley Theatre is notorious for offbeat, pop-culture mash-ups, but they sometimes interject more highbrow fare into their schedule. Case in point: this double bill of one act plays by two of the most celebrated British playwrights of the late 20th century, Harold Pinter and Joe Orton.
The Dumb Waiter is one of Pinter’s earliest plays, an absurdist comedy with a setting so spare it makes minimalism seem desirable. Two men are waiting for hours in a small cramped room for instructions. From whom exactly and to do what precisely are mysteries that seem less important than the effect waiting has on the two characters. A dumb waiter positioned on one wall begins delivering food orders even though this is certainly no kitchen. The unexplained source of the orders is an enigma and the whole play becomes something of a riddle before the end. The stark trappings and terse dialogue are noir-like in their effect, and Pinter resolves things in a manner consistent with that genre.
There is humor, but it is sly and confounding. Chris Petty and Ben Unwin confidently essay the two men, although Mr. Petty’s accent never quite solidified. Mr. Unwin avoided the accent but his transition from apparently slow-witted slacker to a man growing increasingly aware of impending and inevitable danger is a special pleasure; maybe the best work I have seen from this actor.
Even more satisfying is the rare production of a Joe Orton play. Ruffian on the Stair is a lesser-known but fascinating script that lets the past intrude on the present with delicious menace. Mike and Joyce are a lower class couple struggling to make ends meet in London. Mike works “jobs” that seem to be of a criminal nature. A young man named Wilson begins visiting their small apartment while Mike is away, scaring Joyce with veiled threats and insinuation.
I won’t say more than that, but answers do arrive, and prove to be as unsettling as the unease that comes from not knowing. Orton never shied away from unsavory plot elements, and his trademark acid humor is on ample display here. There are more laugh-out-loud moments in this part of the evening, which allows the darkness to go down much easier. But dark it is, with characters alternating between convincing cruelty and less convincing, yet still meaningful compassion.
With charm as easy as his understated brogue, Tad Chitwood makes Mike a palatable, even appealing character, despite the casual misogyny and potential for violence. Polina Shafran is costumed a bit dowdier than seems appropriate, but she discovers the emotional core of Joyce, a woman who suffers no small abuse as the price for domestic ‘stability’. Chesley Sommer, brings an oily, smarmy quality to Wilson that makes the threat palpable, and his capacity for sudden explosions of rage adequately suggest a warped psychology. All three characters are damaged enough to render their actions plausible, if not desirable.
The new Alley space is still struggling with limited production values, but these two pieces, particularly The Dumb Waiter, are apt choices for such a space and make virtue from the limitations. I suspect director Martin French saw fit to focus primarily on performance, which the material demands, and the result is good work all around. Whatever the limitations, the presentation of such material makes this a priority for serious theatregoers, and would be worth it just for an introduction to the work of Joe Orton alone.
Ruffian on the Stair & The Dumb Waiter
June 5 – 21, 2014
The Alley Theater
633 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202