(This is Jerry's review of the original Blackbird production from earlier this fall.)
In his early dramatic writings, Harold Pinter re-energized the language of the English stage. Uneducated characters with regional or Cockney accents talking repetitiously about nothing in particular would not seem to have been promising theatrical material in the land of Shakespeare and Coward. But in the 1950s and ‘60s Pinter took English working-class speech and transformed it into a bleak poetry. Below the banal surfaces of his dark comedies lay unspecified threats, unidentifiable terrors. The “Pinter pause” left a silence where anxiety dwelt, or dread. Comedy of manners became, in Pinter’s hands, comedy of menace.
Blackbird Theatre, the independent company that has established itself as the local source for high-quality classic drama, has put together a fascinating evening of early Pinter pieces for two actors. The first half consists of six brief blackout sketches. After intermission we get Pinter’s 1959 one-act, The Dumb Waiter. Director John Wright and actors Simon Webb and Anthony F. Ingram enjoy mixed success with material that seems both overly familiar and remarkably exotic.
The short sketches that open the show feel like a warm-up for The Dumb Waiter but are in some ways more satisfying as Webb and Ingram transform onstage between skits with quick changes into and out of Marti Wright’s telegraphically accurate costumes. In “Trouble in the Works” a boss and his foreman discuss their workers’ dissatisfaction with various exotically named widgets, building to a crescendo of comically absurd words. In “The Applicant” a job-seeker is tormented by a Kafkaesque female interviewer who uses language on him like a weapon.
The best pieces are the quiet, measured, very funny “Last to Go” and especially “The Black and White.” A newspaper vendor talks banalities to a bartender about the last paper he’s sold that evening. Two old women eat lunch at a caf and watch the buses go by. It’s all about filling the empty spaces with words. Any words will do, really, just to avoid the silence. Webb and Ingram are superb as the women. There’s a touch of Monty Python but the characterizations are delightfully original.
The final sketch, “Victoria Station,” is the least satisfying, an absurd late-night conversation between a taxi dispatcher and an ominously clueless driver. It feels way too long and is neither funny nor ominous enough.
Similar problems affect The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s homage to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Hitmen Ben and Gus pass the time with trivialities while waiting in a basement for someone to give them instructions. Then an elevator-like contraption mysteriously brings them food orders from what appears to be a restaurant above. Despite what passes for a plot, it still feels like a sketch. Some of the comedy is delicious but the rhythms are not quite right and the tension never fully builds to its payoff.
Pinter’s Briefs shows us a master playwright still learning his trade.