Dumb Waiter Plays on More than Words

By Arnav Adhikari

There are few better or more interesting ways of dealing with Harold Pinter’s work than handing it over to a group of improv comedians. The complexity and confusion of language, the situational farce, the importance of timing and the general feeling of burgeoning absurdity that come inevitably attached to Pinter’s plays could create an exciting space for this weekend’s staging of The Dumb Waiter at the Hepburn Zoo. Three members of the College’s own improv comedy group Middlebrow are taking on an adaptation of one of the more popular early works of the acclaimed British playwright and Nobel Prize winner.

First staged in 1960, The Dumb Waiter is a one-act two-man play that follows two hitmen, Ben and Gus, as they wait — like most popular absurdist characters tend to do — in a sparse windowless basement for their next assignment. In a room filled with empty space, vague objects and a mysterious, lurking dumbwaiter (a small elevator used for transporting food and dishes between levels of a building), the action or lack thereof unfolds through Pinter’s masterful breakdown of language and logic. The longer the hitmen await their instructions, the more they tend to dwell on the seemingly mundane, discussing newspaper articles, complaining about dysfunctional flush tanks and arguing over the semantics of the correct verb form of “putting on the kettle.”

Pinter creates a wormhole in which reason and linear narrative are meshed into a shapeless form, punctuated with repetitive symbols like the constant movement of the dumbwaiter, seemingly unable to communicate with Ben and Gus as much as they are unable to communicate with each other. Despite its complexities, The Dumb Waiter is not short of any of twists, turns and entertainment; it comes with an air of lingering suspense, uncontrollably hilarious moments and a shocking revelation at the end.

Director Melissa MacDonald ’15 says she chose the play last summer, specifically for its strange sense of humour and structural idiosyncrasies.

“I really enjoy working within the format and structure of the comedy in this play. Obviously we do a lot of comedy work in Middlebrow, but it’s often two to three minute sketches where we create our own rhythms and patterns,” she said.

“I wanted to direct a play like The Dumb Waiter that is contingent on its own specific patterns because it’s something that I’ve never really done before.”

Actor Luke Smith-Stevens ’14.5 noted the importance of avoiding the over-intellectualization of such a studied play.

“Our process has been about the balance between close reading, keeping it natural and continuing to play with the text,” he said.

MacDonald did a lot of background work to help contextualize and understand Pinter’s unique writing style against works like Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett.

“The role of silence for me is a definitive aspect of this play” she said. “We actually spent one rehearsal in complete silence for over thirty-five minutes in preparation.”

It’s no surprise then that both Smith-Stevens and Alexander Khan ’17, playing Ben and Gus respectively, are able to rehearse and react at a level of total ease with each other. Their work with Middlebrow strongly influenced their creative process for this production.

“We are very comfortable with each other because we know our individual comedic styles and how we play off each other, so we can morph to new choices on the spot,” Khan said. “Our experience working together gives us the freedom to make big — and subtle — choices.”

Even in an accelerated rehearsal schedule like this, we’re constantly trying new things knowing that the other will throw the ball back to you,” Smith-Stevens added.

Although they have been conceptualizing the play since the fall, the actual rehearsal process began only at the start of J-term, and the cast, while well aware of the challenges of such a time frame, is excited to finally open this weekend.

“The biggest challenge besides time has been navigating Pinter’s physical cues and construction of space,” MacDonald said. “He’ll often write in stage directions in some places and then nothing for the rest of the play; the stage and design elements have also been difficult to set up in such a short amount of time.”

“Just the basic fact that this is a two man show has been pretty challenging,” Smith-Stevens added. “It’s not like other plays where you can work different scenes and come back to problematic ones late. This one is all about pushing through and understanding the stitches and seams as much as the fabric of the play itself.”

The glittering sense of excitement amongst the company is palpable, and everyone is eager to put up a show of this nature as part of the independent theatre scene on campus, which Smith-Stevens — graduating at the end of the month — has seen grow in both scale and quality in his time at the College.

“The most memorable experiences I’ve had in theatre have been in student productions; I think it speaks to the willingness to take advantage of the resources here and the eagerness to work hard on putting up small projects and hopefully feel how rewarding the experience is,” he said.

Over the last few years, the Zoo has been a bastion for hosting diverse, independent student run productions, and The Dumb Waiter most definitely has the potential to be an entertaining and evocative highlight. It promises to be a show packed with questions both surreal and utterly human, and with humour that is explosively funny as well as tragic.

If not for any cultural inclination, go watch the show to hear Smith-Stevens and Khan tackle British accents, which they joke somewhat reassuringly, is in keeping with the absurdity of the play.

The Dumb Waiter runs this weekend at the Hepburn Zoo on Jan. 23 and 24, with shows at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Friday and at 8 p.m. on Saturday. The show stars Smith-Stevens and Khan, and is directed by MacDonald, stage managed by Ella Rohm-Ensing ’18 and designed by Tosca Giustini ’15.5, Kate Eiseman ’15, Bjorn Peterson ’15.5, and Ben Rose ’17.5.