Whoever said that nothing good comes of bad behavior was wrong. The pair of plays by Harold Pinter that open this summer’s Pinter Festival at ACT’s Falls Theatre are full of self-interested loutishness, but the dramatic result produced by this star team is not merely good, it is sublime.
Each of the works comes from opposite ends of Pinter’s long writing career. The first, The Dumb Waiter, is among his earliest and, consequently, better-known. Two hit-men (masterfully acted by Darragh Kennan and Charles Leggett) languish in a basement, awaiting word of their next assignment as mysterious commands are received from above. Kennan embodies Gus with a dim air of suspicion, as if he expects the plumbing that snakes across Robert Dahlstrom’s grimy set to grab him. Legget’s Ben is, like Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel, a scolding bully who flails at keeping his partner in line.
It’s a piece of Beckett Lite, with comic dread oozing into every corner. And while it would be easy to mistake these music hall comic thugs for the existential wrangling of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Pinter has more earthly concerns. What astonishes is how this allegory of political terror, depicting in the fading shadow of fascism a pair manipulated by authority to their own ultimate destruction, can hold such resonance in today’s corporate state.
Although still recent, the bile of Celebration has ripened in the aftermath of the big bust. Written in 2002, Pinter’s last work reflects the self-satisfied savagery of wealth in London’s boom years. A party of four at a fancy restaurant celebrates a wedding anniversary amid endless bottles of fine wine and haute cuisine.
Frank Corrado is deliciously loathsome as Lambert, the boorish and emotionally abusive husband who responds only to his own appetites. His brother, Matt (Randy Moore) is a contented passenger while their wives suffer in dignified quiet (Julie Briskman) or tippling misery (Anne Allgood). While the comfortably established tear their meat, a couple at the next table plot their own ascent. A banker (Jeffrey Fracé) grasps at the next rung on the ladder of success while his girlfriend (Mariel Neto) digs without apology for gold.
Amid all this toxicity, it is the bland, nondescript and ultimately unknowable wait staff that must serve and smile. The maitre d’ (Peter Crook) must deflect the wives’ bold and hostile advances with gentle thanks, then see to the comfort of his guests. The wine steward (Cheyenne Casebier) fields personal queries without truly revealing herself at all. A waiter (Kennan again) interjects to assert his own dim and preposterous connections to the great. Dependent on the coin that is certain to trickle down to our palms, we are all grinning enablers of these beasts.
Pinter’s spare writing attracts actors because it is left to their skills to convey what the characters leave unsaid. Even a modestly talented director couldn’t fail with the dream cast this challenging material has drawn. But John Langs excels at firing up the unspoken undertow in a script, and his impeccable instincts are on full display. The intentions and goals of each character are sharply defined at every instant, and even the most innocuous words clash in some kind of battle.
For its current relevance and the artistry on display, it deserves to attract audiences, too. This may be the most perfect piece of theater you will ever see.
“The Dumb Waiter” and “Celebration” run as part of the Pinter Festival at A Contemporary Theater, 700 Union St. Tickets: $5 to $55 for all festival events, included in ACTPass; (206) 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org. Pictured above, Frank Corrado in "Celebration." Photo by Chris Bennion.