Salina Chatlain, sitting, and Howard Kingston star in Ashes to Ashes.
Playwright Harold Pinter’s “theater of menace” depicts violence and anxiety thinly-masked under measured dialog and pauses between his characters’ words. His plays are about as pleasantly uncomfortable as any out there.
Pinter is enjoying a revival ever since his 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, but he’s been writing stirring material since the late ’50s, reportedly influencing writers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh. The Crystal Theatre—which is also experiencing a revival of sorts—houses the Montana Rep’s presentation of two Pinter one-acts: The Dumb Waiter, directed by frequent Missoula Colony attendee and “Weeds” writer Ron Fitzgerald, and Ashes to Ashes, directed by the Rep’s artistic director, Greg Johnson.
Fitzgerald’s version of The Dumb Waiter begins before the play actually starts. As the audience takes their seats, Ben (David Mills-Low) sits in bed aggressively flipping through Gun Digest, chewing wildly on gum. Gus (Tyler D. Nielsen) is swaddled in the other bed, tossing and turning. Sporadically, Ben gets up and puts his ear to the door, listening for something outside—already there is a sense of dread about whatever lies beyond the room. Haphazard plumbing and wires hang above a breaker box. When the lights finally come up we see Gus begin a long sequence of meticulously putting on his shoes. He tauts the laces. He jerks thoroughly at the tongue. He ties with tight precision. The audience laughs at Gus’ prolonged obsessiveness—perhaps with uncertain nervousness—and Ben watches Gus with rising infuriation, fiercely chewing, irritated to no end with the process. After a while, the audience feels just as impatient. Pinter, it seems, is never comfortable to watch.
This story of two hitmen awaiting killing orders seems simple. But the real action is the incongruency between the men’s violent work and their mundane arguments over, among other things, the semantics of making tea—“lighting the teapot” as opposed to “lighting the gas.” Nielsen’s Gus is nicely awkward and somehow innocent, a grating dufus à la Gareth Keenan of the British “The Office.” Mills-Low’s Ben is fabulously wound-up, the serious one whose agitation eventually plummets to breakdown. When the pair discovers a dumbwaiter, suddenly the menace of the outside world is manifested in mysterious food orders sent down to them. The hitmen send up a plate of snacks—all they have—but to no avail. Somebody keeps sending more food orders down, and the men become panicked. “Scampi?!” yells Gus at one point, with dismay, and the audience laughs, but the whole scene is fraught with fear and frenzy. Who is up there? What does this all mean?
The trajectory isn’t far off from McDonagh’s recent film In Bruges, which also follows two hitmen waiting for a job. But The Dumb Waiter lives in a drearier, more claustrophobic and impenetrable world. The surprise ending could have used more anticipation; the rest of the play is far more interesting than the punch line. But Fitzgerald and the cast, for the most part, balance physical comedy and nuanced action, capturing that surreal grittiness.
At first blush, Ashes to Ashes seems very different from The Dumb Waiter. A husband and wife sit in a tidy, symmetrical living room with windows showing a garden. Serene and safe? Hardly. Rebecca (Salina Chatlain) recounts a former lover who would force her to kiss his fist as he grasped her neck. The violent intimacy is unnerving, and Devlin (Howard Kingston) pushes for more details.
Chatlain creates Rebecca as a severe, possessed creature with the odd mannerisms of a Shirley Jackson character. Language in Ashes to Ashes is key, as are the awkward pauses and reiterations that sometimes make the couple seem creepily stilted. Whether they discuss the “ripping of babies from screaming mothers’ arms” or argue over the innocence of a pen, something about the horrors of our collective past—a nod to the Holocaust—seem to haunt Rebecca. Devlin in response tries to control and understand her.
To be honest, the oblique situations, the stiff, uncomfortable language of all the characters in Pinter’s plays could be misinterpreted as bad acting. But Kingston molds his Devlin well, beginning in a slightly alarmed manner, and becoming more dictatorial with language as time goes on, saying things like, “What do you mean, a kind of factory? Was it a factory or wasn’t it? And if it was a factory, what kind of factory was it?”
Chatlain lets Rebecca float in and out of reality, regarding Devlin with a mixture of pity and suspicion, keeping her composure, even while saying, “I’m letting you slip. Or perhaps it’s me who’s slipping. It’s dangerous. Do you notice? I’m in quicksand.” She says it without sounding either too wooden or alarmed, without giving anything away—until the startling end. Though the play never really diverges from conversation, Johnson creates an atmosphere so stifled, the language teetering on a tight rope, that the final monologue is as violent as physical action. And even if your reaction is horror and delighted confusion, as mine was, one thing is clear: These one-acts seem exactly the type of menace Pinter wanted for us.
Covered Nakedness: An Evening of Pinter continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Oct. 23, through Saturday, Oct. 25, at 8 PM. $15.