'The Dumb Waiter' is smart theater

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Silence isn't always serene or golden.

Look no further than the works of British playwright Harold Pinter for a type of silence with an undercurrent of menace and tension. As the lack of sound permeates the air, there's a foreboding sense that something terrible is imminent.

That's especially the case with the British Pinter's one-act, two-character, riveting, mysterious, play "The Dumb Waiter," which the Salem K Theatre Company is staging for four more performances in The Gleason Room, backstage at the intimate Fillmore.

Salem K, which began in England, has mounted a respectable production of the less-than-one-hour play, albeit with mixed results.

Pinter's plays have been compared to the absurdist Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, whose use of silence hints at existential angst and boredom. In Beckett's case, that's particular true with "Waiting for Godot," about a couple of men who do little else but chat casually and comically, waiting for some being (a God?) named "Godot" to appear, but he never does.

There are parallels in "The Dumb Waiter," but marked differences. The two characters are controlled by a mysterious and, unlike Godot, malevolent figure we may assume is their boss. He (she?) may or may not have been handing down odd instructions to these hitmen as they await (hardly in a casual manner) their assignment. It is Wilson (or is it?) who silently, at least to us, delivers orders from above things such as a long-named gourmet dish. Wilson or someone else delivers such orders via a "Dumb Waiter," a small freight elevator used to deliver food.

While the definition is clear, there are uncertainties in the play, such as the history and present nature of the building these men are occupying and who is making these constant culinary requests and why.

A layer of menace and unpredictability lurks beneath. Take the phrase "Light the kettle." Gus feels one should say "gas," since that's what a person is actually lighting, or "put on the kettle," a phrase his mother used. While Ben feels "light the kettle" will do, a hint of hostility lies beneath the seemingly harmless debate. When was the last time Gus saw his mother, Ben asks (could he or Wilson have done something to her, we might wonder). Pinter's silences aren't limited to the state of quietness; an avalanche of words meant to mask more ominous speech is another type of silence in Pinter's work and the kettle debate can serve as an example.

While Wilson is an off-stage character whom we neither see nor hear, he or she is central to the play in that Wilson (or, again, someone else) exercises a great amount of control over the hitmen, appearing stylish in formal clothes, suggesting the two are white collar criminals (Genesis V. Cordoba designed the costumes).

The pair may look like polished professionals, but they're like Wilson's "dumb waiters" so to speak; inanimate, mechanical beings who are controlled by the God-like figure, presumably Wilson.

Meanwhile, Gus is like Ben's "Dumb Waiter"; Ben, the aggressor, is in control of his milder partner, who dutifully repeats commands from Ben; Gus, like a robot that cannot object, will oblige.

Much of the menace inherent in the production stems from the telling facial expressions and thunderous voice of Michael O'Hagan as Ben. Whether his Ben eyes Gus suspiciously or raises his eyebrows and widens his eyes in an expression that's somehow innocent and sinister at the same time, there's a threatening aura about this character. This tense  Ben is, for the most part, consistently on-guard and vigilant, his eyes ready to widen into an icy, threatening stare, his voice ready to thunder and his body, leaning forward, ready to physically pounce on Gus at the slightest provocation.

There's a clear contrast between these less-than-well-developed characters, whom we no little about beyond the fact that they're gangsters.

Haylor, as Gus, lends a thoughtful, inquisitive nature to the character that always seems to irk Ben. Haylor's Gus, who speaks with a less refined British accent than O'Hagan's Ben, also has a playful, laid-back manner, which is appropriate for Pinter's apparent triviality that masks the danger underneath. There are moments when Gus becomes intense and upset, at Ben but especially at Wilson's demands, and Haylor deftly delivers at these times; the emotional intensity never sounds like "acting."  

"Comedy of Menace" is a term that's been coined to describe Pinter's plays.

Pinter is well-known, in theater and popular culture, for his pauses (the "Pinter Pause"). There are moments in this production that honor those breaks in dialgoue. During these moments, we may hear one or more of the characters walking slowly but ominously, the heels of their dress shoes making a clicking, foreboding sound. After a brief pause, the sudden, gasp-inducing flushing of the toilet, which sounds more like an explosion, pierces the air. Similar jolts of unpredictability have the potential to rattle us a bit in this production, which begins seemingly harmlessly with the strains to "Rock Around The Clock Tonight."

Unfortunately, while present, the pauses are few and short, which diminishes the sense of creepy silence. In this uneven production, it's also easy to miss key words, largely because the actors speak quickly and with a British accent. Unless you've read the play or a detailed summary of it, or seen it before, you might wonder what's going on. Hopefully, director Patrick Dromgoole can fix these and other issues.

The actors, who nail Pinter's compressed, vernacular speech, fully inhabit their characters who, in turn, inhabit the setting -- a single room (typical Pinter) without windows, designed claustrophobically and with smudges of dirt by set designer John Danischewsky. With the room's appearance, no wonder it's unappealing to Gus. Paintings of birds grace the walls in the same area as some of the smudges. At first I thought this was odd, but perhaps it reinforces the notion of darkness lurking beneath that which seems harmless or even peaceful and visually pleasant -- like the bright lighting design, which only darkens during the more tense moments.

There's little that's peaceful or light about "The Dumb Waiter," a rich piece of theater with symbolism for so short a play; it's a suspensful, unsettling and unpredictable work that mirrors the frustrations and uncertainties  of the times in which we live.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "The Dumb Waiter," a play by Harold Pinter

WHEN: 8 p.m. today-Sunday as well as 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: The Gleason Room, backstage at the Fillmore, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

HOW MUCH: $20. Log onto http://www.ticketmaster.com/The-Gleason-Room-Backstage-at-tickets-Miami-Beach/venue/107598 for tickets.