THE DUMB WAITER by Harold Pinter, directed by Ted Dykstra, and THE ZOO STORY by Edward Albee, directed by Diana Leblanc, both with Michael Hanrahan and Stuart Hughes. Presented by Soulpepper at the Harbourfront Theatre Centre (231 Queens Quay West). Runs in rep to August 17, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm. $30-$49, stu $25, some $18 and $5 youth rush. 416-973-4000. Rating: Dumb Waiter NNN ; Zoo Story NNNN Rating: NNNN
Few playwrights know how to conjure theatrical menace as magically - or as differently - as Harold Pinter and Edward Albee . Soulpepper's pairing of their early plays The Dumb Waiter and The Zoo Story is a lesson in subtext, in how a director and a pair of actors can get behind and under a writer's words to suggest a world that seems ordinary but holds knife-edge danger around an everyday turn.
Unfortunately, the paired works don't succeed equally.
Pinter's 1957 The Dumb Waiter has two hired hit men ( Michael Hanrahan and Stuart Hughes ) waiting in an abandoned restaurant basement to do an unspecified Sopranos-style extermination job. The machine of the title regularly sends down food orders that become more and more comically absurd. There's a Godot-like touch here, for their boss is never seen, and the two men play at semantic games to pass the time.
Director Ted Dykstra and the actors give the figures little touches of humour - Hanrahan's Ben is guarded and accepting, Hughes's Gus is chatty, nervously questioning and plays at being a tough. But Dykstra moves the action slowly, blunting the rhythm of the speeches and, more problematically, gives away too much too soon, telegraphing the ending.
Albee's 1959 The Zoo Story, in which Diana Leblanc directs the same actors, is the more confident production, with dozens of nuanced moments, power shifts between the characters and an intense climax. Here Hanrahan is the bookish, almost prim Peter, who returns the verbal ball when the talkative Jerry, a stranger with several chips on his shoulder, engages him in New York's Central Park.
Leblanc stays away from the potential sexual tension between the two, concentrating instead on their social and economic differences and playing up Albee's humour. The rhythms are vibrant, and Hughes, given the more poetic speeches and the showier role, delivers a bravura performance. As the listener, Hanrahan's role is lower-key and in a way harder to play engagingly, but in the actor's hands Peter's compassion for Jerry brings us onside.
The Zoo Story makes frequent comparisons between people and animals, so it's not surprising when the final battle becomes a territorial one over a park bench. What begins as bizarrely comic becomes tense and nasty, leading to an ending that's both earned and upsetting.