Some playwrights try to change the world with their debut scripts, but it’s probably smarter to play it safe and be content with signaling your larger ambitions while focusing on serving as good company. You can change the world when you get invited back. That was the road taken by Harold Pinter and his self-appointed protegee David Mamet with their respective first plays, now being presented at Old Arizona in an enjoyable double feature by 3 AM Productions.
Other than the fact that they’re both fairly amusing and a little harrowing, the plays don’t have much in common. Presented first is Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, a tense comedy from 1957 in which two hit men sit in a room waiting for a sign that the time has arrived to delete their next victim. Ben (Aaron Coker) is the patient pro, and Gus (Tim McVean) is his fidgety apprentice. The scenario, complete with odd-couple comedy, was reincarnated for the 2008 film In Bruges, and theatergoers primed by that film (as I was) will figure out pretty quickly what’s actually going on. The title refers not only to one of the men (presumably Gus) but to an actual dumbwaiter that comes unexpectedly to life, apparently carrying menu requests from would-be diners on a higher floor.
Director Joshua Iley keeps the mood appropriately uneasy, and Coker and McVean play their cards well. The challenge for the actors is to act genuinely surprised at the increasingly odd events taking place while also dropping clues for the audience that one, or each, of the men may know (or be quickly figuring out) more than he lets on. It’s not a jaw-dropping play, but it’s certainly engaging and amusing, and well-performed. The novel stage configuration, which has audience members flanking the set on two sides, underlines the jumpy atmosphere: Coker and McVean glance warily back and forth from one group of watchers to the next.
|dumb/sex, playing through january 23 at old arizona. for tickets ($18) and information, see 3amprod.org.|
After Pinter’s slow-burning, character-driven humor, Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago roars out of the gate after intermission with an enthusiastic account of an outrageously kinky one-night stand. (Punchline: “Those fucking firemen make out like bandits.”) The raconteur is the unapologetic lecher Bernard (Michael Kelley, chewing the scenery and spitting it back out), a cynical bastard with the soul but not the dangerous charm of a Neil LaBute antihero. The listener is Bernard’s hapless friend Danny (Justin Hooper), who is soon to embark on an ill-fated relationship with a supposed lesbian named Deborah (Hannah Steblay), much to the chagrin of Deborah’s bitter roommate Joan (Anika Taylor).
The play unfolds in a kaleidoscopic series of vignettes and monologues, with the spotlight dancing across the stage to illuminate different portions of the spare set for intervals ranging from one to several minutes. Parts of the play are wildly entertaining, particularly the cock-thrusting (and, of course, fundamentally insecure) speeches Mamet gives Bernard. Director Sarah Teich maintains the play’s original mid-70s setting, which not only allows costume designer Stacey Wenzel to have fun with polyester but also makes Bernard’s brazen misogyny 34 years more plausible.
Over the extremely successful career that has followed Sexual Perversity, Mamet has become known for his biting dialogue and clever plotting, not a sensitivity to the finer points of romantic relationships, and despite its appeal (it was adapted as the 1986 film About Last Night…, which the playwright has disowned), Sexual Perversity does not suggest that Mamet made a poor choice in trading the bedroom for the crime scene. Steblay and Hooper bring a touchingly breathless ardor to their first scenes together, but their characters turn on each other almost instantly, and neither seems too surprised at the relationship’s trajectory. Kelley’s and Taylor’s characters, having been disillusioned from the get-go, undergo no change whatsoever. Love is hell, but are lovers really this hardened? Maybe in Chicago.
Correction: This article originally stated, incorrectly, that Tim McVean plays the role of Ben and that Aaron Coker plays the role of Gus.