Ask Pinter Festival co-creator Frank Corrado, “Why Pinter?” and his answer is a glib-sounding “Why Not?” But as Corrado waxes poetic about the importance of English playwright Harold Pinter (Think Shakespeare, think Shaw, Corrado urges), it’s clear he’s deadly serious about why Pinter deserves a month-long festival of plays, films, theater sketches, a master class, readings and parties — all by or about the Nobel-winning playwright.
Known primarily for four of his plays — Betrayal, The Homecoming, The Birthday Party and The Caretaker — Pinter wrote a total of 29 theater works before his death in 2008. Most are rarely performed in recent times, at least in the U.S. Today, much of Pinter’s oeuvre is considered “inaccessible” and “box office death” for its ambiguity and often maudlin tone. Despite hilarious one-liners, the typical Pinter play abounds in non-sequiturs, absurdities and unresolved conclusions that often leave viewers scratching their heads about what just happened.
It’s precisely those qualities that lend Pinter to lively post-performance discussions, as reactions to the precursor Pinter Fortnightly readings at ACT amply demonstrated. Conceived by Corrado, a nationally known actor/director, and sponsored by ACT’s Central Heating Lab, in 2009 Pinter Fortnightly showcased a number of Pinter's one-act plays through readings — most of them largely unfamiliar to both actors and audiences. Each reading featured a post-performance discussion, which was frequently as compelling and interesting as the plays themselves. Word spread quickly and by the end of the Pinter Fortnightly series, shows were consistently sold out.
Spurred by that success, Corrado and ACT Artistic Director Kurt Beattie conceived The Pinter Festival and, based on the palpable excitement at Thursday night’s festival opening, it seems they’ve struck gold. The full house of patrons and local actor-celebrities greeted the two one-acts, The Dumb Waiter and Celebration, with gusto. The entire evening had a party atmosphere — the feeling of a community coming together in celebration of theater that simultaneously challenges and entertains.
Of the two plays, The Dumb Waiter was the more successful, due to its relentless drive toward a surprise ending; the superb performances of Darragh Kennan, one of Seattle’s most talented and versatile actors, and Charles Leggett; and a brilliant set by Robert Dahlstrom that enhances the menacing undertone propeling the action forward.
Many of Pinter’s plays turn on a battle of words in which the action is mostly interior. In The Dumb Waiter there is an abundance of Pinter’s signature biting, trenchant verbiage, but also an unrelenting sense that something terrible is about to happen. Fear not a “spoiler alert” here; there is plenty to talk about in reviewing The Dumb Waiter without giving away the shocking ending.
As much as anything else, The Dumb Waiter provides a definition of the theater of the absurd. We meet Gus (Kennan) and Ben (Leggett) in the dingy confines of a basement apartment, where it soon becomes obvious they are waiting for instructions from someone to do some deed that they have done before. Pinter’s inspired writing — and Kennan’ and Leggett’s Laurel-and-Hardy chemistry — keep them locked in intense exchanges about such inconsequential issues as whether the correct expression is “put on the kettle” or “light the kettle,” while keeping us on the edge of our seats as we try to figure out what Gus and Ben are waiting for.
Even if you grasp reasonably early what kind of job these men have been hired for — or think you do — Pinter adroitly exploits all the tension and drama he can wring from their bizarre interactions with a clanging dumb waiter that keeps sending them food requests they can’t possibly fill from an unknown figure upstairs. It’s a mark of Pinter’s genius that he simultaneously plumbs both the humor of the situation in Gus’ and Ben’s situation and the desperate human desire to please even the most infuriating or sinister masters. When The Dumb Waiter ends, we feel that we have learned an essential truth about how easily manipulated any one of us can be if the stakes are high enough.
Celebration, the other one-act play presented on opening night, was less successful, primarily because it lacks much of a dramatic arc. It was Pinter’s last play, inspired by an experience he and his wife Antonia Fraser had at a posh London restaurant where they were distracted by a boisterous group of diners. In Celebration, the diners consist of a foursome at one table – two sisters married to two brothers — who are celebrating one of the couples’ anniversaries, and a different pair at a nearby table who spend the evening sparring over the wife’s premarital sexual escapades.
Nothing really happens in Celebration, even by Pinter standards, although he does a masterful job of skewering Britain’s pretentious nouveau riche with uproarious one-liners. Despite Pinter’s exceptional skill at conveying character almost entirely through words (and oh what words!), the play feels light and inconsequential. The cast of 11 — most of them ACT veterans and well-known locals like Corrado, Anne Allgood, Julie Briskman, Cheyenne Casebier and Peter Crook — were engaging. But at least on opening night, they seemed to lack the sharpness necessary for Pinter’s wicked satire.
What they did capture in spades, however, was Pinter’s zest for life: “Life is beautiful,” he once said in an interview, adding the caveat, “but the world is hell.”
Over the next month, thanks to The Pinter Festival, we’ll have ample opportunity to delight in Harold Pinter’s extraordinary capacity to reveal both the beautiful and the hellish aspects of contemporary life and to celebrate a theatrical giant who has too often been overlooked on the American stage.
If you go: The Pinter Festival, ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, through Aug. 26. Prices vary by event. The full schedule and ticket prices available at 206.292.7676 or www.acttheatre.org.