The playwright Harold Pinter (b. 1930, d. 2008) holds a certain fascination for actors of a certain generation. On the surface, he seems to epitomize the witty and naughty British schoolboy who jokes with a strong dose of political subversion that titillated—and continues to titillate—actors who found their artistic consciousness, and their political conscience, sometime in the 1950s and 1960s. Listening to middle-aged actors praise Pinter (as I did in a post-play discussion that I saw this weekend) is like reading Martin Amis praise his old dad Kingsley—the reverence seems more like the dumbstruck awe of a child than the earned respect of a peer.
But the younger generation of theater- makers, at least in Seattle, isn't that interested in Pinter. The playwright's deft, subtle rabbit punches at the class system and the political establishment were overwhelmed by the shock and awe of what immediately followed his reign—punk rock and spectacle, performance art that involved nailing oneself to cars, rave culture, epic performances, and writers such as Sarah Kane, whose sound and fury was so fucking loud and so fucking furious that the small, sharp gibes of a writer like Pinter got lost (where the fireworks of Shakespeare or the searing darkness of Beckett stuck in our imaginations). Pinter is the Philip Larkin of playwrights: intelligent, British, well-educated, witheringly funny, a favorite among the cognoscenti, probably great to have at a party—but, due to his accidental place in history, he looks like an anemic kitten drowned in the raging flood that followed him.
But it's a shame we haven't kept listening to quieter voices like Pinter's, and it's a pity his work has been so neglected, because he has things to teach us. (Sound and fury can break a dam and let the flood rage, but it isn't very good at helping us figure out what to do next.) Thanks to local actor Frank Corrado (who began a regular Pinter reading series that started gaining steam a few years ago), artistic director Kurt Beattie (who supported him), and ACT Theater's Central Heating Lab (which also supported him), we have a summer Pinter festival to let us pause and revisit the man's best work.
The night I attended was a double bill of one-acts: The Dumb Waiter and Celebration. In The Dumb Waiter, Pinter takes a run at Beckett's Waiting for Godot: Two men are waiting in some dank fluorescent-lit basement (a meticulously claustrophobic design by Robert Dahlstrom that looks like any water-stained basement with pipes and meters that you could want) waiting for orders. One is younger and garrulous (Darragh Kennan), and one is older and cranky (Charles Leggett). They both have guns and, it appears, are waiting for orders from above to assassinate someone. The older one reads his paper while the younger one asks questions: Why this? Why that? When will the boss be in touch? I've been meaning to ask you...? According to Leggett's program notes, his character ignores or dodges a total of 53 questions from Kennan's character. Meanwhile, someone is sending down requests for complicated food: Chinese dishes, bean sprouts. Both characters spin out trying to cover the food requests and thinking about all the killing they've done and the killing they have yet to do.
The play is about two lugs in limbo, playing out hyper-mundane comedy (if there is such a thing as "hyper-mundane"), talking about newspaper stories and black tea and semantics (do you "light the kettle" or "light the stove"?), while we get to feel the long, ominous shadow cast over them. Both Kennan and Leggett are superb as the respective dumb kitten and exhausted lion. I only wish they would've come on in the next act as Didi and Gogo from Godot.
Instead, we are treated to Celebration, Pinter's final play, about a bunch of well-to-do, ill-behaved drunks at a restaurant. An older foursome at one table goes on about older-people things: The two women, sisters, want to kiss the maître d'hôtel (played by the gorgeously unflappable Peter Crook) "on the mouth." The two men, brothers (one of them played with perfectly innocuous comic timing by the festival's godfather Corrado), are inveterate lechers who ignore their wives and reminisce about past conquests.
A younger couple upstage plays out younger-people drama—he's trying to impress her, she's trying to make him jealous about all the old rich men she fucked when she was younger. Eventually, everyone winds up at the same table, while Kennan and Leggett—from act one—play their waiters. The double bill makes a perfect upstairs/downstairs pairing. In The Dumb Waiter, we see the seedy basement where the dark comedy of the dirty work for rich people who hire assassins plays out. In Celebration, we ride the dumbwaiter upstairs to see how vapid and stupid those rich people are. The assassins, in their small talk and small irritations, but basic humaneness with one another, come off looking a lot better.
Perhaps Pinter was more subversive than we thought.