Ben and Gus have bigger things to worry about than their accommodations. The two hitmen are waiting for instructions for their next job, but everything about their temporary hideout in a nearly empty basement seems unsettling in Harold Pinter’s one-act drama The Dumb Waiter.
In The Radical Buffoon(s)’s production at Fortress of Lushington, running through March 24, the basement’s brick walls are gray. Two metal-frame beds with thin mattresses are the only furnishings besides a lone photo mounted on the wall. There’s a hallway to a small kitchen, and a window for the namesake dumb waiter shaft to lift parcels to upper floors of the building.
James Bartelle and Clint Johnson play the two British killers, and in an element of chance added to the production, they flip a coin at the start of the show to determine who will play Gus and Ben.
They wear black suits and thin black ties, and both have handguns holstered under their coats. Ben, who has seniority, flips impatiently through a newspaper and occasionally shares his reactions to stories. Gus seems easily distracted, which in a subtle way borders on comedy. He wants a cup of tea, but he can’t seem to operate anything in the kitchen. His ineffectualness and musings get under Ben’s skin.
Both Bartelle and Johnson ably play both roles, and both versions are compelling and slightly different. Bartelle’s Ben angers quickly and is irritable. He seems to hit his boiling point quickly and simmer during most of the show. As Ben, Johnson lets his anger build slowly, and his effort to contain it gives that version a more balanced feel.
As Gus, Johnson exaggerates some of the boredom and restlessness and gets a bit more humor out of the role, though Bartelle seems more sympathetic in his version.
The drama builds via small doses of absurdity. A bizarre message arrives via the dumb waiter, and it’s not clear if it’s for them. Ben and Gus recall events differently, such as if they have been to Birmingham before, and the tension mounts.
The Dumb Waiter is a mystery, not an existential predicament. Any sense of waiting in limbo is not about time to reflect. Though Ben and Gus are on edge about their work, they don’t get too weighed down by the issues they graze, such as the types of victims they prefer.
The piece is spare, and just about every word matters. Director Jon Greene doesn’t rush the show’s silent and awkward moments, and still it flies by in 50 minutes.
It seems like a dramatic scheme that Pinter could have done in less time. Johnson and Bartelle do a good job of living in their characters' skin, but the work doesn't dig much beyond the surface. The mystery drives toward its conclusion, which is satisfying, but as a thriller, The Dumb Waiter is more about the tension and surprises than any of the consequences.
The Dumb Waiter
March 7-10, 13-17 & 23-24
8 p.m. nightly
Fortress of Lushington, 2215 Burgundy St.,
Tickets $20, $15 students/seniors/artists (March 13 show is pay what you will)