When Harold Pinter accepted his 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, he opined: “Language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you at any time.” The Pinter audience must be positioned somewhere between tantalization and precariousness, not merely receptive to but welcoming of the ambiguous and the inscrutable.
Two of Pinter’s one-act plays, The Lover and The Dumb Waiter, continue on the North Coast Rep’s Solana Beach stage through Sunday under the direction of David Ellenstein. Taut and earnestly performed by a cast of four, the two works showcase the audaciousness of Pinter, who passed away in 2008. The evening’s first one-act, The Lover, is a sophisticated adultery tale with a twist – though you see the twist coming a kilometer away. Mark Pinter and Elaine Rivkin are the well spoken British husband and wife who share a role-playing secret that they begin to push too far. Their physical chemistry when out of their oh-so-proper pretensions, is delicious.
The Dumb Waiter, which premiered more than 50 years ago, is the more studied and certainly more challenging of the two Pinter plays. The story of two hit men (Frank Corrado, Richard Baird) apparently priming for an assassination in a dingy Birmingham basement is playfully abstruse, though the genius of the play is its inescapable sense of inevitability looming over the two characters’ nearly Abbott & Costello-like antics. Irritable Ben (Corrado) and hapless Gus (Baird) are retrieving food orders from the basement dumb waiter, but we know there’s more in store for them than that. When the house goes dark at the sudden finale, the applause is tentative. Is it over? What just happened? That’s the mischief of this North Coast Rep pairing: Lull the audience into a sense of false security with the entertaining but transparent tale of The Lover, then leave them confounded and a little stun-gunned by The Dumb Waiter.
Director Ellenstein and the cast treat these plays with reverence while milking the comedy that inhabits both and daring us to venture across that frozen pool of Pinter’s.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.