These are just the first of many questions that arise during Unexpected Stage Company’s newest production, a double bill of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and Susan Glaspell’s Trifles. The two one-act plays share a number of commonalities, including a fondness for asking questions, a story centered around a murder, and a confidence that the audience wants more than a simple story with every loose end neatly resolved before the final curtain.
The evening opens with one of Pinter’s earlier works, his 1957 two-man absurdist suspense play, The Dumb Waiter. Set in a basement, we meet Gus and Ben, two hit men killing time waiting for their next target. Gus (Matt Boliek), the younger, more naïve of the two, is fidgety and seems incapable of waiting in silence. He complains about everything from his lack of sleep to the boredom of their jobs. He ask questions – many, many questions – that are rarely answered. Ben (Christopher Dwyer), the more experienced partner, seems quite happy with silence although, when confronted with probing questions about their job, their boss Wilson, and their next victim, Ben becomes more and more tightly wound until he viciously erupts over an inconsequential idiomatic expression. The dumb waiter adds to the questions and tension when it delivers orders for increasingly exotic entrees.
Throughout the 50-minute story, we become ever more engaged, waiting for and searching for the answers to our questions: Who is the next victim? What is the deal with the absurd requests sent by way of the dumb waiter? Why is the air filled with such a strong sense of danger and violence?
Boliek plays his hitman character with an unexpected but authentic innocence. While his partner might find his chatter annoying, we never do. Dwyer doesn’t move from his seat on his cot for most of the first half of the play, but he is effective in communicating his character’s domination over the other. Both actors convey the sense of a long-term and comfortable relationship which is what makes the underlying menace of Dwyer’s character so unnerving. While I was initially disturbed by the both men’s British accents that never seemed quite genuine, I became so involved in the story, it was not a problem.
The show’s producers describe The Dumb Waiter as an “edge-of-your-seat dark comedy.” Despite a more spartan than seedy basement set, the action is tight and claustrophobic. Director Christopher Goodrich successfully delivers the suspense but falls a bit short in comedy. I would have liked a bit more humor given the show’s description. Peter Dowty’s lighting is modest but perfect for the story and venue.
Ultimately, the show’s startling climax leaves us with more information but still in search of understanding. The Dumb Waiter is not an easy, fluff-filled suspense story but rather a program that questions, baffles, and engages. Pinter begs his audience to grow comfortable with silence and the unknown. You will want to go with one or more friends because it is theater that requires post-show analysis. My theater partner and I had a great time on the long ride home considering theories, motivations, and meaning.
Following the evening’s intermission, we are presented with Trifles, a one-act forensic mystery exploring the aftermath of John Wright’s murder. Written by Susan Glaspell, the play was first performed in 1916 although its timeless themes could easily be performed in a contemporary setting.
Like Pinter, Glaspell uses silence, questions, and unease as the investigation begins into the farmer’s death in his bed with a noose around his neck. Once again we have questions: Who killed the man and why was he murdered?
The Sheriff (Christopher Dwyer) and County Attorney (Matt Boliek) suspect Mrs. Wright, the wife, but are unable to uncover a motive as they search the Wright house. A neighbor, Mr. Hale (Baakari Wilder), tells how he discovered the dead body. Mrs. Hale (Heather Davis) and the sheriff’s wife (Mary Sarah Agliotta) are present to collect a few personal items for Mrs. Wright who is in custody.
While the investigators make disparaging comments about the state of Mrs. Wright’s housekeeping, they fail to see the clues among the kitchen “trifles.” The two women, on the other hand, understand the trifles – an empty birdcage, the broken jelly jars, a half-clean towel and an unfinished quilt – as hints into the lives of the Wrights.
The story is at its strongest and most poignant when the two women are alone on stage. They juggle the competing pulls of law-and-order with society’s limited roles and rights for women to be in control of their own lives. Agliotta is especially notable as the sheriff’s wife who moves from a position of “the law is the law” to a sense of her own guilt in not visiting the farmer’s wife. Her voice trembles as she says, “We go through the same things, just different kinds of the same things.” Davis as the neighbor with far more empathy and understanding of the things she sees – gives the audience an early idea that things may not be as simple as they seem. Wilder, as the neighbor man, is compelling as he recites his discovery of the body and Mrs. Wright’s curious behavior. I found it difficult to separate Boliek and Dwyer’s characters from those in The Dumb Waiter and so never found them convincing.
Christopher Goodrich’s direction never takes us away from the taut story. Christopher Townsend’s spare set from The Dumb Waiter is successfully transformed into the deteriorating farm kitchen while costumer Emma Duncan gave each actor a simple yet appropriate look.
In its third year, Unexpected Stage Company is a refreshing addition to the local theater scene. True theater devotees will appreciate the high caliber work, the attention to detail, and the choice of works that provoke, stimulate and engage. Christopher Goodrich and Co-Producing Artistic Director Rachel Stroud-Goodrich are to be applauded for their efforts.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
The Dumb Waiter and Trifles, play Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through August 12, 2012 at the Randolph Road Theater - 4010 Randolph Road, in Silver Spring, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online.
Read Christopher Goodrich’s preview article.