In drama, as in comedy, timing is everything.
Jon Greene, director of “The Dumb Waiter” (through March 17 at the Fortress of Lushington, 2215 Burgundy St.), knows this as well as anyone. Greene’s background in physical comedy — specifically Italian commedia dell'arte and good ol’ American slapstick — lends itself to the kind of clowning that can evoke a span of emotions, from belly laughs to broken hearts.
In “The Dumb Waiter,” Greene applies his trade to British playwright Harold Pinter’s 1960 mid-century marvel of a play. Under Greene’s direction, the cast of two (James Bartelle and Clint Johnson) approach the work deliberately and methodically, wringing comedy and drama from the noirish absurdist tale of two hitmen killing time between jobs.
In a small windowless room, the two killers-for-hire wait: Ben, the senior partner calling the shots, and Gus, the talkative sidekick who packed snacks. In a traditional sense, not much happens. Ben reads his newspaper, while Gus prattles on about football, tea and crisps. But things get strange when the pair start receiving cryptic notes from a dumbwaiter, a small elevator-like contraption used to ferry items between floors.
“The Dumb Waiter” is the second production from The Radical Buffoon(s), a loose collective of theater artists helmed by Greene. Their first outing, a co-production with Rockfire Theatre, was last year’s “Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play.” The post-apocalyptic dramedy was an ambitious offering (perhaps overly so), with a large cast and unconventional musical numbers.
Proving that less is sometimes more, “The Dumb Waiter” is scaled down considerably from that debut production and succeeds largely in its attention to detail.
At the top of the show, Bartelle and Johnson emerge in their sharp black suits and crisp white shirts for a two-man mime act that ends with a coin flip. The results determine which actor plays which role. On opening night, it was tails, so Bartelle played Ben and Johnson played Gus. It’s a clever framework that establishes the commitment to physical, full-bodied storytelling.
Bartelle and Johnson deliver fine performances. In fact, it’s tempting to return for a repeat viewing, in hopes of seeing the charismatic pair in reversed roles.
From pithy banter to angry exchanges, the actors take their time with the dialogue. Each beat is measured for full effect rather than simply plowed through. Johnson excels in his portrayal of the hapless Gus, drawing out the character’s conflict over his chosen line of work. As Ben, Bartelle plays the straight man, eventually revealing a more complicated side.
The production also pays careful attention to the playwright’s stage directions, which include long bits of wordless action — rustling a newspaper, tying and re-tying a shoe. Deftly directed and performed, the payoff is an uneasy dramatic tension that’s as likely to explode in laughter as violence.
The set is employed for equally maximum effect, from Kyle Sheehan’s Foley-style sound effects to Megan Whittle’s behind-the-scenes manipulation of the dumbwaiter and other set pieces. The set design by Kevin Griffith is fantastic. Downtown productions in makeshift venues often take a minimalist approach to set design, but here the set is well-constructed and realistically built with lots of moving parts, all painted in shades of gray that underscore the droll nature of the script.
The only weakness comes in the final moments. After so much careful pacing, the provocative ending of Pinter’s play — which has been the subject of much discussion and debate over the last half-century — is rushed through, followed by a quick blackout. The final scene deserves a longer lingering moment for audiences to process.
Clocking in at just 55 minutes, “The Dumb Waiter” is wound tight from beginning to end, a satisfying exercise in dramatic tension and showmanship.
'The Dumb Waiter'
WHEN: Through March 17
WHERE: The Fortress of Lushington
2215 Burgundy St.