Two of Harold Pinter’s inscrutable one-act comedies, 1957’s “The Dumb Waiter” and 1962’s “The Lover,” make up Hudson Theatre Works’ current offering, “Pinter x 2,” playing now through Nov. 19. It’s not the first time the company has done Pinter, but this will be the last production housed at Weehawken’s Woodrow Wilson School, which is slated for renovation.
There are two pieces of good news, though. After a sojourn back at the Weehawken Water Tower, Hudson Theatre Works’ previous home, the company will take up residence at the township’s new performing arts center, to be built at Port Imperial. And of more immediate concern, “Pinter x 2” succeeds on every level. It’s mesmerizing theater with outstanding performances, taut direction and impeccable staging. Like so much of Pinter, the mundane and the nonsensical combine to form a narrative that the audience doesn’t so much experience as decipher.
HTW artistic director Frank Licato takes center stage here, figuratively and literally. He plays one of the two characters in “The Dumb Waiter” and directed “The Lover” (in which he also gets a cameo).
In the first play, Licato plays Ben, one of two hitmen waiting in a basement room for their assignment. Ben, the senior partner, is engrossed in a newspaper, while Gus (Kevin Cristaldi) fidgets and fusses and asks annoying and sometimes inane questions. The men make small talk, argue and reminisce; time passes slowly. They remember other hits, ponder who owns the buildings in which they await their targets … plenty of questions but no answers, Samuel Beckett meets Abbott & Costello. Their banter ranges from funny to cruel, until what seems like the most prosaic of set-ups turns decidedly weird.
Someone slips an envelope full of matches under the door. What are the matches for? The men have already learned the gas stove doesn’t work when they tried to make a cup of tea. Then, a dumbwaiter descends from an upper floor. Inside is an order for food. The men debate what it could mean, who could be upstairs, why would anyone assume they were serving food?
These two killers are so used to taking orders that the prospect of not responding to these mysterious requests rattles them, so they send some up snacks that Gus had brought: a small cake, milk, a bar of chocolate, chips. They find a speaking tube with which they can communicate upstairs and are told the chocolate was melted, the cake was moldy, the milk was spoiled. None of it makes sense; or rather, it makes as much sense as the audience is willing to allow it to.
Eventually, the men put on their jackets and shoulder holsters, straighten their ties and get ready to go to work. Finally, Ben announces that it’s time to do the job. Gus heads off, stage right, to use the men’s room, and …
I won’t spoil the ending — not that I can explain it, anyway, except to say it’s classic Pinter. But I extend kudos to Licato and Cristaldi. Both men deliver credible British accents, with Licato’s delivery suggesting what an English Jimmy Breslin might sound like, working class but still very much aware that he’s the smartest guy in the room.
Cristaldi, quite honestly, had me enraptured, even when what he babbled on about made little sense. He deftly portrays a man who doesn’t understand the world around him, and the audience can palpably feel how lost he is. That’s the ultimate theater experience: to get lost in the sound of words.
Whether you perceive “The Dumb Waiter” as an asburdist masterpiece, a political allegory or something else entirely, two riveting performances and Adrian Wattenmaker’s tense direction will keep you engaged and enthralled.
“The Lover,” written for television in 1962 but later performed onstage, presents a typical suburban middle-class tableau as a husband in a gray suit and snappy fedora leaves for the office while his wife stays at home to cook and clean. It’s the British version of Rob and Laura Petrie from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” of the same era, until this husband asks, “Will your lover be coming this afternoon?”
This tangled web of sexual identity and marital connivance wants us to believe that Richard — a chipper, middle-aged executive — is perfectly fine with his wife Sarah having afternoon trysts with a paramour. What’s more, we learn that Richard has a whore whom he sees on the side, too. But we quickly learn that there are only two lovers in this foursome: two people who have taken to role-playing to sustain their marriage.
Quinn Cassavale and Todd Hilsee impress as Sarah and Richard, nailing their fussy British accents and bringing depth and inscrutability to this odd couple. “The Lover” can be presented as an ironic comedy or a tragedy; Licato’s direction splits the difference. There is laughter, for sure, but also a sense that these people have been damaged by life and the farce they are living can’t be sustained.
Cannavale’s Sarah seems the most game, crawling on the floor in a kittenish frenzy or coming on like a bawdy courtesan. Hilsee’s Richard never really manifests the lust the situation calls for, maintaining a stiff-upper-lip reserve even when he’s role-playing a Casanova or a sexual stalker.
Hudson Theatre Works did a fine job with Pinter’s “The Caretaker” a few years ago, but they’ve gone above and beyond with “Pinter x 2.” Given that Weehawken doesn’t offer much in the way of nightlife, affordable neighborhood theater is not just a pleasure, but a blessing. Knowing that Hudson Theatre Works will share a state-of-the-art new home in a few years is heartening, but by all means don’t overlook what they’re doing now in the modest confines of the Wilson School auditorium.
Hudson Theatre Works presents “Pinter X 2” through Nov. 19 at the Wilson School in Weehawken. Visit hudsontheatreworks.org.
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