The Dumb Waiter/One for the Road | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Dumb Waiter/One for the Road 

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THE DUMB WAITER and

ONE FOR THE ROAD

The Resistance

at the Rudely Elegant Theatre and Gallery

Two gangland assassins wait in a bare room for the man they are to murder. Though they have a fine record with the Organization, Gus is beginning to ask a few too many questions. This hint of cold feet disturbs his senior partner, Ben, who reads him appalling stories from a tabloid to raise his misanthropic morale and to help them both ignore the mysterious dumbwaiter that persists in sending them inexplicable messages . . .

For some reason the Resistance has chosen as one of its debut plays Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter. Written in 1960, this one-act is one of the most popular acting exercises for two male characters (after Waiting for Godot and The Odd Couple), possibly because the lack of reference points characteristic of Pinter makes his plays perfect tabulae rasae for directors, actors, and audiences. Unfortunately, this particular work has been analyzed so many times that the question of whether it is a parable of the welfare state, the criminal subculture, the social ethic, or the corporate imperative is no longer compelling. What we are left with are simply two men in a room, one worrying about the other and the other worrying about himself, a situation that director Richard Gosse's by-the-book production does nothing to clarify.

There is a certain entertainment value to watching two buddies pass the time, however, and The Dumb Waiter is not without comic relief. Pinter's 1984 One for the Road also presents us with two men in a room, but this time the conversation is humorless and one-sided. In this production the talker is a black man in a natty suit, the listener a vaguely Hispanic-looking man in a prisoner's uniform, but otherwise it's the same interrogation we've seen in countless movies and television melodramas: the sadistic, whiskey-swilling Nicholas informs the beaten, cringing Victor that his house has been ransacked, his wife gang-raped, his son kidnapped, and his entire past exposed and that his only chance lies in capitulation. Abbreviated versions of the scene are later inflicted on the wife and son.

Are we watching an attack on organized religion, a propaganda piece on the evils of totalitarian tyranny (let's see, who were the bad guys in 1984?), a satire on societal conformity, a delineation of Freudian mysteries, or a rather nasty racial commentary? Do we care? At its most basic One for the Road is 20-some minutes of one person torturing another, and though we in the audience might claim to identify with the victims--it makes it easier to express the appropriate horror and disgust afterward--there is no real reason for this exchange of unbridled power and mute agony except the enjoyment of the audience. Judging by the gleeful giggles, this audience was enjoying the ugly spectacle thoroughly.

The Resistance cites as its goal "challenging the audience to think," but since it provides no context, the only questions raised tend to be frivolous ones: Why is Nicholas unconcerned about the mess that the filthy and bleeding prisoners may make in his lovely and luxurious office (splendidly rendered by David Ramey)? Why is Victor's son named after Nicholas? Are the ethnic appearances of the actors significant, or merely color-blind casting? Director Gosse provides no clues.

The Resistance developed from Valparaiso University's Underground Theatre, a "student run . . . forum for creativity, that opened doors for many unheard on the main stage." The Resistance retains traces of collegiate arrogance but displays much talent as well--notably in Simon Perry's intelligent Ben and Ron Gilbert's coloratura Nicholas (though his performance is so distinctive it appears to have been recycled from a previous production, mentioned in a program note).

The Resistance speaks out against theater that has become "a byproduct of motion pictures," but the free-floating paranoia of The Dumb Waiter and the depersonalized violence of One for the Road appeal to the same visceral emotionalism tapped by films. Once the founders of the Resistance resolve this fundamental contradiction, they should be better able to realize their good intentions.

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