In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche declared God dead. In 1966, Tom Stoppard declared Rosencrantz and Guildernstern dead. In between, in 1957, Harold Pinter declared the higher power to be a fussy guest in an upstairs room at a decaying hotel, alive and incoherent with a penchant for room service.
It's a testament to The Dumb Waiter and its theatrical siblings that, nearly a half century later, the plays still seem challengingly new and incomprehensibly ahead of their time. In the wake of WWII and the resurgence of chaos out of order, the theater world gradually awakened to the grief of the deity's departure. The most interesting and enduring theater of the time came from a corps of dramatists who burned the blueprints, setting off into a new wilderness without so much as a map to guide them. Gone were the old formulas for tragedies and comedies. In a world that had outgrown its black-and-white delineations, modern playwrights brought the theater into the dark, cynical, absurd world of the tragicomedy. Pinter followed closely on the heels of Eugne Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, but his plays are slightly more accessible, delving into nihilism from a grounded perspective, making meaning out of the meaningless while others gave in completely to the absurdity.
Pinter keeps one foot in the realistic. His stories are fixed in place, in this case Birmingham, England as opposed to Godot's "A country road. A tree." There is the appearance of aimlessness to the script, but Pinter both knows what he is aiming at and, ultimately, lets his audience understand the target, if only unconsciously. Pinter is a master at secrecy, but he uses his secrecy for dramatic purpose, not as a mere power play with which he can monopolize the material essential to the meaning. His characters are in something of a state of darkness about their situation, but the parts eventually cohere, and whether we can confidently comprehend all of Pinter's aims, by the end of the play we know what happened.
Chip MacEnulty and Andrew Porter seize the audience's attention in the first moment of the play as Gus and Ben, a couple of travelers in a shabby hotel room who say little of consequence line by line, but who eventually reveal their world to us through the critical playing between the lines. MacEnulty's Gus works hard to reveal nothing below his shallow surface, but he manages to convince us that there are depths to plumb in the arc of his performance. Depth is an occupational hazard for Gus, however, and when he lets questions and concerns leak out from behind his facade, it is the ironic caulking that seals his doom. MacEnulty pulls off the challenge remarkably well, constantly forcing the audience to reassess his situation.
Porter's subtext is easier to work with, because his Ben has a slight edge of inside information that fuels his frustration over the situation. He is the anchor that keeps the play grounded, a mirror for the audience, letting us know that we are not alone in our wonder and confusion with a character like Gus. Porter's body language, his rhythms and his palpable discomfort convince us there is meaning to glean.
Director Karen Kennedy alleviates some of Pinter's tautly strung tension by filling the silences with business. The great theatrical action of the era was waiting, and aside from Beckett's grand gesture of Godot, there may be no better realization of the concept than the legendary Pinter pause. The play opens with what at first glance appears to be a pause, but it's actually only a silence filled with action. The real pause, after nearly a play full of taunting, comes when there are no words, no action, just an agonizing freeze-frame moment between the two characters, each rippling with subtext in their most connected moment. By the time Gus asks, "What's going on here?" the audience -- and Gus -- has caught up with Ben. The minor variations leading up to this moment raise the stakes for the payoff, and even a semi-baffled audience can sense the kinesis lurking on this precipice of dramatic meaning.
Conveying meaning is the ultimate challenge of this generation of theater -- and the most often overlooked by theater companies armed with an adolescent infatuation with the obscure. Tri-Lakes raises their production well beyond these standards, and the performances should beckon audiences to an enjoyable evening in a wonderful new venue.