My youth was restored for a couple of hours recently at the Gaslight Theatre by St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production of two one-acts, “The Zoo Story,” by Edward Albee, and “The Dumb Waiter,” by Harold Pinter. I directed “Zoo Story” some fifty years ago. “The Dumb Waiter” was one of the one-acts through which many of us first became acquainted with Pinter. I appreciated seeing them again. I recognized some things in them that I hadn’t notice before I became acquainted with the rest of their careers.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? followed not long after “The Zoo Story,” which can seem like a warm-up for the later play, with Albee’s rich, witty, intelligent language, always a joy to hear, and the riveting stories told in both plays. The stories carry the one-act; “Zoo Story” has little plot or development. But a constant tension is created by the contrast between the two men. Eventually it pays off with an abrupt flash of violence.
The two actors at the Actors’ Studio create that subtle tension very well. If Joel Moses telegraphed Jerry’s cunning and desperation too early and too openly for my taste, there are many ways to play the many layers of Jerry. I prefer a more subtle Jerry. But this way works. William Roth has it all down as Peter, the upper-middle-class, upper-East-Side literary editor, quietly reading a book on a bench in Central Park.
Patrick Huber’s set and lighting give us that bench, plus a backdrop projection of the New York skyline as seen from the park.
Huber creates a much more substantial set for “The Dumb Waiter,” and I was very impressed that stage manager Amy J. Paige and her crew got it onto the stage during the intermission. It’s a basement room with two doors, two cots, and on the wall between the cots is a dumb waiter and its speaking tube. This basement must once have been the kitchen of a restaurant on the upper floor.
Ben and Gus, the two men in the room, are hit men who have spent the night there while waiting for their final instructions and the identity of the victim they are to eliminate. The program lists no makeup person, so maybe Roth did it himself, but his character Ben looks to be several rungs down the social ladder from Peter. His hairline even recedes. He’s older than Gus, reads a newspaper and doesn’t say much but is obviously the one in charge. Moses hasn’t needed to change his appearance that much from Jerry to play Gus. Gus is getting restless, eager to finish the job and be gone. Unlike Ben, he talks a lot. He peppers Ben with questions, getting meager answers. He talks about previous jobs, wonders who’s giving the instructions and why. Moses gets him.
Late in his life, Pinter wrote some very political plays about authoritarian governments and their methods. Given the relations between the two men and the shocking conclusion of “The Dumb Waiter,” I think you can see an anticipation of those later plays here.
Teresa Doggett provided the costumes, further confirming the social status of each of the four characters. A joint effort of the crew created the loud rumbling of the descending and rising dumb waiter and the metallic clang when its window opens. Wayne Salomon, who probably knows these plays even better than I, directed them fluently.
Photo by Patrick Huber