by Gail M. Burns, April 2007
Many, many years ago, I purchased tickets to a rare U.S. performance by a British youth theatre troupe. I was very excited to see this group perform. The audience was seated on bleachers on either side of the basketball court where the action took place. In other words, not only was I watching the play, I was watching the other half of the audience watching the play, and vice versa.
This was a powerful drama set in a reform school involving gang violence, and just when the knives were drawn and the two sides came together amidst threats and clangor, a man seated on the bleachers opposite me started laughing loudly. The worse the on-stage violence got, the more raucous and disruptive was his laughter. If I remember correctly, even the actors were giving him dirty looks.
And I thought “This man is ruining my night at the theatre!” Then I realized that this man WAS my night at the theatre. And indeed, I while I can no longer tell you the name of the group I was so anxious to see perform*, or the title of the show, or what it was really all about, I can distinctly remember the moment that man started laughing and the reaction I had to it. It was a major learning experience for me because it taught me that the audience is a part of the show, a huge part, and they are entirely unrehearsed and unpredictable.
At the Town Players’ opening night, there was a person in the audience who did not behave in the manner expected. S/he was never still and never quiet. I believe that s/he was enjoying the performance, and I’m glad, but just like that laughing man so many years ago, s/he became an integral player in my theatre experience. I cannot write about this production without writing about him/her.
A modern American audience is trained to give itself over to the performers and the playwright and the director and the designers and the technicians and dare them to entertain and engage us. We focus our energy and attention on the stage, and expect it to be reflected back at us. This person’s behavior upset that balance. The energy was dissipated. People did not know where to look and what to listen to. The actors, poor things, had to continue to focus their energies on us, but we were distracted and unable to reciprocate. Dis-ease set in.
To make matters worse, this is community theatre. These are not professional actors. The Lichtenstein is a tiny performance space. Once the curtain is up the show must go on.
And to really make things difficult, the first play presented was by Harold Pinter. All those pregnant Pinter pauses that I had been looking forward to were filled with this woman’s constant noise and motion. So I cannot tell you whether my impression that the actors – Douglas MacDonald and Kevin Wixsom – rushed the play was accurate or an illusion. Since I have seen both of these actors do fine work in other dramas, I choose not to believe that they were simply incapable of interpreting Pinter. Indeed, when I was able to focus my attention completely on the stage, there were many enjoyable moments between the two actors. Wixsom played Ben slow and stolid, while MacDonald’s Gus was one jangly bundle of nerves. I didn’t trust either of them with a gun.
The Dumb Waiter is not a nice, neat linear play. It requires an investment of attention on the part of the audience, an investment that the opening night crowd was prevented from making, and even so it is a play that leaves you with many questions unanswered. Under the circumstances, that was frustrating rather than intellectually stimulating. I was amused to overhear a member of the audience seriously quizzing the actors at the intermission, determined to make sense of what she had just seen. She probably thought she had missed a key line or plot point in which all was revealed, which, of course, she hadn’t.
Since this was Pinter, I think a few Director’s Notes in the program might have been in order. Even though Pinter has been an enormous, Nobel Prize-winning fish in the tiny pond that is the world of legitimate, literate theatre for nearly half a century, a community theatre audience could use a bit of a helping hand when encountering him.
When I was preparing to review these shows I surfed through some Pinter for Dummies-type notes online and was amused to see an entire paragraph devoted to a definition and explanation of a dumb waiter. They are such handy things for moving small loads from floor to floor of a multi-story structure – surely everyone has seen one in their lifetime. But once the play was underway I realized how alien the mechanism has become. Either a brief written description in the program, or a more clearly visible stage prop (the dumb waiter here was merely a small door in the wall and a sound effect) was necessary.
I had intended to begin this review with a little side-by-side comparison of the playwrights. Harold Pinter and Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. were both born in 1930 and both started their writing careers in the late 1950’s. But while Pinter achieved success rapidly – by the time The Dumb Waiter was first presented in 1960 he was already garnering international attention – Gurney had to wait until the success of “The Dining Room” in 1982 before he could quit his day job. (Indeed, he is still at least nominally on the faculty of MIT.) So The Problem a brief, two-character one-act written in 1969 is not only early Gurney, it is obscure Gurney. I cannot think how it could be performed except in an evening of one-acts like this, and even here I was left ready for a third little playlet to round out the evening.
While Pinter was born to working-class Jewish parents in the Hackney section of London, Gurney was born into upper-class WASP society in Buffalo, New York, at a time before the collapse of industry in the northeast decimated that city. Educated at St. Paul’s and Williams (class of 1952) Gurney is famous for writing about the slow erosion of the genteel east coast world into which he was born. In The Problem an unnamed but obviously WASP-y husband and wife confront the mess that is their conjugal life in a way that only members of that hopelessly repressed culture could.
Under Tom Reardon’s direction Jonathan Slocum is delightfully on target as the husband, whose response to the sudden appearance of his wife enormously pregnant, a situation apparently heretofore overlooked by both parties, is to say that she can “keep it, raise it, give it my name” before preparing to scurry off to his evening class.
But Denise Roller seems hopelessly miscast as the wife, incapable of projecting WASP-y repression or the virginal innocence required even of long-married mothers of five or six children in the suburban Leave It To Beaver world where sex doesn’t exist and one wears one’s pearls even in the shower. Reardon and Roller present this woman as unkempt and worldly in a way that just isn’t done in Gurney-land.
The Problem is a play with a definite beginning, middle and end, and several hearty laughs along the way, so it was easier to focus on and follow. The audience seemed relieved to find it could quickly grasp the topic at hand (sex) in spite of the continued distractions, and took gleeful refuge in their opportunities to make noise too (laugh).
Obviously, I saw these two productions under less than ideal circumstances, and there is no doubt that the experience colored my critical reactions. But have to say that even if there had been no noise and distraction, I still would have had strong reservations about the imbalance of the evening. Pinter and Gurney are two great tastes that DON’T taste great together. The Dumb Waiter did its best to be serious theatre seriously presented and The Problem felt decidedly amateurish. The set for The Dumb Waiter was plug ugly and having two real beds on that tiny stage made for awkward blocking. I did feel that the double-bill, which runs a scant 90 minutes including the intermission, would have been more satisfying with the inclusion of a third play about the same length as The Problem.
I still have high hopes for the Town Players’ 85th anniversary production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado slated for a mid-June run at the Boland Theatre at BCC. Over the years I have seen this venerable community theatre group do some wonderful shows, and I would like to see them come back to those salad days in their golden years.
The Dumb Waiter and The Problem presented by the Town Players of Pittsfield will be performed April 26-28 at 8 p.m. and April 29 at 5 p.m. at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, 28 Renne Street, Pittsfield. Tickets are $7. The entire evening runs about 90 minutes, with one intermission. I think The Dumb Waiter would be scary and confusing for young children, and The Problem is a mite risqué. I wouldn't bring kids under 13. Call 413-443-9279 for tickets and information.
* It was the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain's production of Peter Terson’s Good Lads at Heart that I saw in the spring of 1979 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007