Included as part of a month-long Harold Pinter festival at Seattle’s ACT Theatre is a doubleheader of one-acts from opposite ends of the great British playwright’s career, The Dumb Waiter and Celebration. It’s a potent one-two punch of inky black comedy, existential absurdity, and surely some of the finest acting to appear on Seattle stages this year.
First up is 1957’s The Dumb Waiter, in which a pair of hit men contemplates their profession, semantics, and snack food in a dingy basement while waiting for instructions on their next hit. Charles Leggett stars as Ben, the seemingly unflappable senior member of the operation. Darragh Kennan is Gus, the near-manic novice who’s having a difficult time separating himself from the grim implications of his line of work.
Spats over the teakettle are soon displaced by interruptions from the basement’s dumbwaiter, which keeps sending down orders despite the lack of any way to fulfill them. Ben and Gus attempt to appease the mysterious requests with their meager collection of rations, but the orders just keep coming and coming.
The Dumb Waiter ratchets up the tension internally and externally: Pinter’s distinctive language and dialogue rhythms are as engrossing and rattling as the roar of the dumbwaiter coming down the chute. Both Kennan and Leggett are extraordinary here, playing off each other’s emotional volatility with such perfect timing and intuition, you’d swear they’d been performing these parts together for years.
Second on the bill is Pinter’s final stage play, Celebration, a biting comedy of manners where polite dinner conversation gives way to underlying relational nastiness and a healthy dose of the absurd. At London’s most expensive restaurant, the action alternates between two tables: at one, an anniversary dinner for Lambert (Frank Corrado) and Julie (Julie Briskman), accompanied by her sister Prue (Anne Allgood) and Prue’s husband, Matt (Randy Moore); at the other, a younger married couple, Russell (Jeffrey Fracé) and Suki (Mariel Neto). Soon enough the tables converge, brought together by a sordid past between two of the characters.
Periodically making interjections between the banal self-deception and disingenuous platitudes of the diners is an unnamed waiter (Kennan again, proving himself the all-star of the night), who weaves fantastical tales about his grandfather’s many famous acquaintances. Even as the waiter’s stories grow more and more outlandish, there’s a distinct sincerity that acts as a bracing counterpoint to the hilariously despicable dining parties.
A true ensemble piece, Celebration doesn’t have anything even resembling a weak link in the cast. Some of the finest performances belong to the blustering Corrado and the lusty Neto, both capable of twisting every last drop of comedy from their perfectly cadenced lines. The always delightful Allgood has a smaller part here, but I’ll be damned if her drunk acting isn’t the best subtle humor of the entire production.
Director John Langs, helming both plays, does an exceptional job of maintaining the pause-filled rhythms of Pinter’s dialogue, while Robert Dahlstrom’s scenic design is wonderfully evocative, especially his Dumb Waiter set, where the dank, musty air is almost palpable.
ACT’s Pinter Festival will also stage productions of Old Times and No Man’s Land, starting Aug. 18. Tickets to all of the Pinter productions are available at ACT’s website.