By: Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, respectively
At: Signal Ensemble Theatre at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division
Contact: ( 773 ) 347-1350; $10-$15
Two men, two meetings, two cryptograms that resolve themselves with violence or its imminent threat: In both Edward Albee's The Zoo Story and Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, menace hangs like ether in the air. The fact that both one-act plays are also often chortlingly funny gives both a delightful, macabre twitchiness
In pairing the the two, the Signal Ensemble Theatre offers an evening of tantalizing unease. These are fearsome little two-handers—dramatic illustrations of Thomas Hobbes' theory that life is nasty, brutish and short. And, as Albee and Pinter illustrate, absurd.
Here we have characters living on the precipice of nihilism. To survive—or to make any sense of the violence and death all around—they have to surrender the comforting, quaint notion that life has meaning and the human race overall is governed by some guiding moral truth. As if, Albee and Pinter insinuate. The world is a dark, random place. The joke's on us—might as well laugh.
Signal knows its way around these themes; the company staged a fine Waiting for Godot earlier this year, and The Dumb Waiter is very much Pinter's earlier, shorter Godotesque predecessor to the masterpiece. For The Dumb Waiter, director Aaron Snook keeps the pacing vaudeville brisk as hitmen Ben ( Joseph Stearns ) and Gus ( Philip Winston ) wait in a seedy transient hotel for orders from the unseen Wilson. The pair prefigure Godot's hopelessly hopeful ( only Pinter could make that seeming oxymoron make sense ) Vladimir and Estragon in telling ways, from the mysterious rubbish Gus shakes from his shoes at the play's onset to the all-powerful authority of their mysterious boss.
As Gus, Winston builds to a mesmerizing finish, starting as a doltish man-child and—as senseless events pile into terror—and escalating to pupil-dilating fear. His break-down howl ( 'What's he playing all these games for' ) is an Edvard Munch scream, the primal yell of somebody who has just discovered his life has been one, long mind-fuck.
The final moment of The Dumb Waiter is crucial, a thing packed with unresolvable tension and threat. Winston and Stearns get it absolutely right.
A similarly harrowing story unfolds in The Zoo Story, as a pleasant afternoon in Central Park devolves into one man's destruction and another's salvation. Who gets what, however, is hard to say.
The men here are Peter ( Stearns ) , an upper-middle class family man, and Jerry ( Christopher Prentice ) , a volatile loner with nothing left to lose. Director Ronan Marra pulls both the jarring humor and the jagged desperation from the text, providing a story that jangles and unnerves. But this is Prentice's showcase. He moves and talks with the intensity of a shock treatment, keeping a precarious on a razor-wire of ramblings about the grotesqueries of life.