Review: THE DUMB WAITER at Katonah Classic Stage

Double-Bill in Pinter Play Festival Includes Rarely Seen Sketch 'The Applicant'

By: Oct. 26, 2023
Review: THE DUMB WAITER at Katonah Classic Stage

Imagine stepping outside yourself to observe a random conversation with someone – anyone – from the day before. Pause. There’d be fragmented sentences, periodic pauses, petty pecadillos, random comments on mundane topics unrelated to the rest of the conversation, flights of wry, dry humor. 

Buried within the over-arching circle of life, from womb to tomb, is the more humble, menial circle jerk of daily existence. Therein lies the stuff of what can be, in the right hands, compelling drama.

Welcome to the world of iconic and iconoclastic British dramatist Harold Pinter. He’s gone 15 years, but through his unique voice and enduring works, the provocative playwright continues to look down on us, forever trying to make sense of our often inexplicable and accidentally funny behavior.

A hearty round of applause is due professional theatre company Katonah Classic Stage (KCS) for having the theatrical savvy and performance chops to showcase what makes Pinter, well, Pinter, through its month-long Pinter Play Festival. (I mean how many community theater stagings of Arsenic and Old Lace must we withstand before – thanks to KCS artistic director Trent Dawson and executive director Sharron Kearney – we can appreciate the pleasure of Pinter?)

Following its acclaimed production of Betrayal in early October, KCS is staging a double bill on its boards through Oct. 29 in Armonk’s Whippoorwill Theater (at North Castle Library): it has paired rarely-seen short sketch The Applicant with Pinter classic one-act, The Dumb Waiter.  (For tickets, visit

It’s long been settled fact that no other dramatist is quite like Pinter, and the Pinter style (more like a mystique) is unlike anybody else’s who plies his trade – though comparisons have been made to his earthly muse, master of the absurd Samuel Beckett

The Dumb Waiter is built with the trademark tropes and techniques that comprise a vintage Pinter. There is no room – or need – for exposition, so if you’re waiting to discern a decipherable story line, you might as well be waiting for Godot. There also is no room at times for excess dialogue, with the ubiquitous Pinter Pause (which is written in the stage directions) equal in weight to wordy utterances. It’s as if the puppet master loses patience with his own characters and, through the pause, is telling them, “Oh, shut up, already!” much as we might be tempted to say just that to a motormouth with whom we’re conversing.)

A typical Pinter might begin with an ostensibly innocent situation that becomes both threatening and "absurd" as Pinter's characters behave in ways often perceived as inexplicable by his audiences and by the characters themselves. It’s not for nothing Pinter pieces have earned the oxymoronic and wholly fitting label “comedy of menace.” 

He’s reminding us that life can be, within the same short breath, both tortuous and ticklish. It’s not to say Pinter is so avant-garde that his appeal eludes fans of pop culture. Witness the 1997 Seinfeld “backwards” episode (titled “The Betrayal”) that pays Pinter homage, not to mention a Pinter reference about subtext in a 1998 episode of TV drama Dawson’s Creek (“Tamara’s Return”).

At rise of The Dumb Waiter, Ben (Anthony Foux) and Gus (Jason Downs) appear to be two plain-vanilla schlubs hanging out in a characterless, gray basement that could almost double as a boot camp barracks or a jail cell. The effectively atmospheric set design and lighting are by Laura Valenti and Riley Cavanaugh, respectively. 

In the case of Ben and Gus, as they are waiting for orders from above (both literally and figuratively), they discover a dumb waiter in their midst and proceed, to priceless comic effect, to entertain themselves by trying to figure out, and then communing with, whomever is pulling the pulleys on the contraption. That’s Pinter’s wink-wink way of conveying that somebody is pulling their strings, or, more coarsely, yanking their chain. 

Actors Jason Downs and Anthony Foux play beautifully off each other, with Mr. Foux the “senior partner” straight man and Mr. Downs the shambles of a sad sack foil. If that makes The Dumb Waiter sound more like a comedy sketch than a drama, welcome to Pinterworld. Stretches of dialogue (of this and other Pinters) can evoke the misdirection and escalating amusement of the famous Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” 

It’s as if you expect Ben and Gus to stop mid-sentence and ask the other, “What is it we’re talking about exactly?” These two professional toughs verbally spar over such manly matters as crockery design, how one describes the simple task of boiling water for tea, and how to concoct the menu orders served up (actually, down) by the dumb waiter. Pinter is pointing out, with impeccable rhythm and locution, the petty pecadillos that prop up inane conversations we can’t avoid having. 

Little by little, we discover what these two are up to, but their destination is not Pinter’s point. He’s mining the idiosyncrasies of human behavior, telling us that life is what we make it, and, spoiler alert, we are perfectly capable of making it a mess. 

Pinter’s play pen performs a theatrical version of laparoscopic surgery. He pierces the superficial outer skin of our existence with minimally invasive precision to get at the real meat of the matter that lurks underneath. 

I laughed out loud at one point as Ben, feeling empowered by his role taking orders from the dumb waiter, takes a moment to tidy up his jacket collar and lapel, even though the only person within sight is hapless Gus. At the opening night reception, I asked actor Anthony Foux if that bit of sartorial business was in Pinter’s scripted stage directions. The actor said it was an actor’s choice he made. Suffice it to say,  both he and Jason Downs, and director Marilyn Fox, make a lot of right choices. 

The Pinter Festival has been imported by KCS from its original home, Pacific Resident Theatre (PRT) in Venice, California. In a program note, PRT’s artistic director writes that Pinter’s “characters deal with feelings of doubt and powerlessness, unsure of what the future will bring.”

The same can be said of the double-bill’s first offering, The Applicant. Featuring Jason Downs as Mr. Lamb and Shelby Barry as Miss Piffs, it is a kind of vaudevillian or English music hall bit of diverting nonsense that serves as an amuse bouche, to Pinter-ize the audience for what is to follow in The Dumb Waiter

The Applicant is there to tell us, “If you thought this was weirdly amusing, we’re just whetting your appetite for the intriguing main course.” No synopsis of The Applicant can do it justice, but one interpretation I inferred is that it mocks, in a highly concentrated and farcical way, what we’re willing to put ourselves through to get what we want. More than that you’ll have to figure out for yourself when you see it.

Pinter makes you think. About what is being said. What is being unsaid. What is about to happen next? Why what happens happens. The climax of The Dumb Waiter leaves you momentarily mystified as you come to grips with the revelation, as did this viewer, that “I didn’t see that coming!” With Harold Pinter, you rarely do. 


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