The plays of Harold Pinter, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, are generally not very long, nor do they offer much dialogue. But to suggest that these works are not involved would be misleading. They are punctuated by pauses that reveal as much—or as little—about the characters as the lines do; they verge on the threshold of absurdism; and they create unrest in their audiences. The plays often deal with an apparently trivial situation, which Pinter gradually reveals to be a threatening one, and his characters act in ways that seem inexplicable both to their audiences and, at times, to each other. Such is the case with Tlaloc Rivas's well-directed revival of The Dumb Waiter. Staged by Ward 10, a character-driven production company, at Midtown's intimate Phil Bosakowski Theater, the play begins innocuously enough. Gus (Tim Kang) ties his shoes while Ben (Jon Krupp) reads the newspaper in a small basement room that includes a dumb waiter and a toilet in another room that seems to occasionally flush—or not flush—itself at will.
Gus complains about the routine of his life—sleeping in unfamiliar rooms during the day, performing the job he does with Ben, then fleeing at night. Ben, meanwhile, is far more complacent than Gus, telling his nervous partner that he should keep mum and be grateful for their employment.
Eventually, we realize that these men are hired assassins.
Then an envelope, containing 12 matches, slides under the door. Rivas has expertly paced and blocked the arguments that ensue between the two as they try to determine what they should do with this new delivery. The tension continues to build while they wait for that night's marching orders, and the audience begins to feel as unsettled as Gus does.
Confusion is added to the mix as the men start to receive requests from the room's dumb waiter. It turns out that the floor upstairs was once a cafe, and the basement was a kitchen. The dumb waiter starts delivering food orders, and while the men cannot fill them, they send up what little food they do have. Gus's ambivalence about what lies in store, meanwhile, continues to grow.
Plays like this do not provide much in the way of explanation or resolution. Instead, Pinter creates plenty of atmosphere, disorienting the audience members so they can identify with Gus, who has been stripped of virtually everything but his instinct for adaptability.
Both Kang and Krupp perfectly embody the two hit men. Krupp's Ben is no-nonsense; his every movement is direct, and he never hesitates with a line reading. In contrast, Kang's Gus is the ideal yin to Krupp's yang, repeatedly retracing his steps and asking questions in an inflection dramatically higher than Krupp's.
Rivas has armed himself with excellent company, particularly lighting designer Stephen Petrilli and set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers, who create the very claustrophobic world that Gus and Ben must inhabit. Her set is stark, with just the two beds in a tightly enclosed space. Additionally, David Anzuelo's contributions as fight director are invaluable.
With this sterling production of The Dumb Waiter, Ward 10 proves it's a company that's unafraid to challenge its audiences. Contemporary theater could use a little of that these days.