Our experience of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter,” directed by Landon Johnson for Vespertine Productions at The Flight Theatre at The Complex Theatres, is not so much that of a fly on a wall; a fly’s buzz would unbalance Johnson’s tersely orchestrated suspense tale of two hit men in a Birmingham basement. It’s more like eavesdropping on the men’s exchanges through the paper-thin walls. The dialogue is perfunctory, almost tedious: the recitation of how an 8-year-old girl killed a cat, of how a man got smushed under a truck; requests for tea, for meals, as communicated via a dumb waiter that, given its context, reads more like a guillotine. The room is drab, UPS brown-toned. Like gyroscopes draped in tweed, the men maintain their perfect, individual orbits, until that last, explosive moment.
What Johnson understands (and subsequently nails) is the story’s businesslike tone. Just two out-of-town schleps with a job to do. He sets it up so that we think that nothing of substance happens until the moment the lights suddenly drop; psychologically, in fact, things have been happening all along. We don’t know the nature of the mission until one of them pulls a gun. With ingenuity and nuance, he compartmentalizes the cluelessness of the men; they had a job but the particulars were need-to-know. The hierarchy was well-established. Ben (a taciturn Jordan Randall) was the boss to Gus (a restless Krisopher Lee Bicknell). But both, to gauge by the squalid setting, by the way they spring to attention at the sounding of a disembodied voice that issues from the dumbwaiter, are low men on the totem pole.
What Randall and Bicknell understand (and subsequently nail) is that they’re foot soldiers, like John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction,” following orders, killing time. Particularly effective was how they talk about things mundane (soccer, a cup of tea) in the same tone of voice that they discuss the hit. Just another day at work. Bicknell and Randall play it like a mouse and a snake. Bicknell nervous; he darts around, takes orders, asks questions, ponders the identity of the victim. Randall calculating; stationary, perturbed at being interrupted as he reads his paper. And then…
Red herrings (matches in an envelope slide under the door; food orders echo from a sepulchral dumb waiter) don’t move us. The waiting does. Things crescendo to the realization (surprising to them, startling to us) that, as per the Dire Straits, sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Who’s the victim? Ask John Donne.
Performances are 4:30, Saturday, June 25 and 7:30, Sunday, June 26. The Theatre is located at 6472 Santa Monica Boulevard, 2nd floor, Hollywood. For more information visit http://pintersdumbwaiter.wordpress.com.