Dumb? Wait!: Pinter & a Pair of Chekhov’s Shorts

Well, I’ve been struggling to keep up, which makes me feel and appear rather dumber than usual. I have gotten into the habit of editing my journal entries online, of dumping scraps here in hopes of making something of them, eventually. “We must beat the iron while it is hot, but we may polish it at leisure,” Dryden famously said. As a poet, composing in solitude, he probably never thought of doing the polishing in public. At any rate, given the relative obscurity of broadcastellan, I often assume that my composing here is very nearly done in private; but the realization that one looker-on had landed here after scouring the web for references to “Dr. Harry Heuser,” no doubt with the intention of checking my credentials, rather put me off the idea of performance editing. And yet, as dumb as it might be not to wait until such time as the half-cooked turns into a dish fit for tossing into this dumb waiter of a vehicle, I am not easily reformed. It is quite literally too late for that now.

I just got back from an evening of theater. There is always time for that; and the offerings here in the small seaside town of Aberystwyth, just outside of which I reside, is gratifyingly varied. Once again, I can’t wait to share my thoughts, however dumber they will be expressed in the shoddy prose of the moment. Before my memories go stale or my mind blank, I have got to share my thoughts on the Compass Theatre Company‘s production of Pinter’s “Dumb Waiter,” with a “Pair of Chekhov’s Shorts” thrown in.

The shorts suited us just fine. “The Evils of Tobacco” and “The Proposal” (translated by Neil Sissons), are comedy sketches Chekhov wrote for the vaudeville stage early in his career, “Evils” being a monologue and “The Proposal” a one-acter for three characters. Both pieces deal with what is generally thought of as the end of comedy, marriage, by inviting us to see the end of marriage as comedy.

The henpecked husband ostensibly lecturing about the “Evils” of smoking is really more keen on, and indeed desperate to, share his thoughts about his miserable existence as dictated by his controlling spouse. The monologue was delivered with humor and pathos by Michael Onslowe, who was seen in all three pieces. “Evils” would work well on radio, I thought. It is one of my hard-to-kick habits always to think of what I see in the light (or darkness, as it were) of its radiodramatic potentialities.

Nor does “The Proposal” pose any great challenges to the adaptor for radio, even though Sisson deftly exploits the physical aspects of comedy in the slapstick treatment of the suitor’s nervous disposition. As the title suggests, “The Proposal” tells of an intended match, the advancement of which goes awry. However old and slight these two plays, the laughter was not derived from our perception of their datedness; nor did they greatly rely for their effect on the audience’s nostalgia for this kind of entertainment. They simply still work as comic banter.

Pinter’s “Dumb Waiter” is rather more dependent on what is unexpressed, even though Gus, one of the two hapless hitmen waiting for their next job, seemed to have echoed our attitude toward this final play on the bill when he exclaimed: “It’s worse than the last one.” Commenting on the dump of a hotel in which he and his partner Ben are waiting to carry out their next assignment, he adds: “At least there was a wireless there.” Is “Dumb Waiter” radiogenic? Surely not in the way that Pinter’s “A Slight Ache” plays with your mind.

Still, the titular contraption prominently mounted in the center of the stage, and the speaking tube attached to it, made me think of the wireless that Gus was missing. Indeed, it very nearly made me go “Yoo-hoo! Is anybody?” as I thought of Molly Goldberg’s old apartment and the role her dumb waiter played in her everyday communications with the unheard Mrs. Bloom. I guess, a day without radio to me amounts to something like an existential void. It is certainly more than “A Slight Ache.”

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