The set for “The Dumb Waiter,” part of a Harold Pinter doubleheader with “A Kind of  Alaska,” through Feb. 12. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Review: ‘A Kind of Alaska’ and ‘The Dumb Waiter’ at Lamar University

Harold Pinter is an acquired taste. The Nobel Prize winner draws on the the absurdist tradition of Samuel Beckett to give us plays that offer us questions but rarely any answers. For a nerd like me, that makes for a lovely evening at the theater.

For the uninitiated, Lamar University’s theater department’s doubleheader of two short plays, “A Night in Alaska” and “The Dumb Waiter,” directed by Joel Grothe, which opened Feb. 9 in the Studio Theater, is a nice introduction to Pinter’s work.

First up is “A Kind of Alaska,” written in 1982. It begins with middle-aged Deborah (Iza Scott) in bed, watched over by her doctor, Hornby (Michael Saar). After a long pause — pauses are the order of day in this play — Dorothy wakes and begins a stream of consciousness, meandering conversation with no one in particular as Hornby writes feverishly in his notebook. Dorothy has been asleep for a long time — a long time, Hornby emphasizes — and Deborah is forced to come to term with not only her surroundings, but the loss of almost 30 years.

Pinter was inspired to write “Alaska” after reading neurologist Oliver Sacks‘ “Awakenings” (made familiar through the movie with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro), about Encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness which leaves its victims in a state that is, as Hornby says, “Not asleep, but not awake, either.”

17-001 Poster-PinterScott does a fine job of conveying the confusion of teenage girl waking up as a woman in her 40s. Saar is solid as the doctor who has his own secret. Rounding out the cast is Maddie Hightower as Pauline, the no-longer-13-year-old sister, who excellently conveys the double loss of her life. The sense of loss hangs over the proceedings and the pauses add to the mood. However, it is not without levity, especially when Deborah, unsure if this woman is really her little sister, asks where Pauline got her breasts, incredulously.

What will happen now Deborah knows the truth? We know where her physical body has been, but where has she been in her mind? She alludes to halls, but where or how? Why? and what’s next? are also left unanswered.

Where “Alaska” slowly moves toward discovery, 1957’s “The Dumb Waiter” crackles. Sure, the pauses are there as Ben and Gus wait for the next next job, but the tension and humor whisk the action along. The two characters are in a run-down room with a couple of rickety cots and little else. Ben (Sydney Haygood) sits reading a paper as Gus (Austin Jones) wakes from a nap. The pair are a team, but different. Ben is the older laconic veteran, while Ben is the fidgety, talkative junior partner. They are killing time before a job (one wonders if Quentin Tarantino was inspired by this play to write the characters Vincent and Jules in “Pulp Fiction“).

When the dumb waiter door creaks into life, the pair find a note for a food order, then another, then another. The mystery of who is ordering the food ramps up the tension, causing cracks in the teamwork.

Jones is well cast as the impatient Gus, constantly questioning what is happening. Who, what why and when? — the questions never stop. Haygood is, once more, a stand out. Regular LU viewers know she is consistently strong and as her Lamar career progresses, her flexibility and confidence grows. If you have yet to see this fine actress, now is the time to start.

“The Dumb Waiter” is lauded as one of Pinter’s finest early works and this production does nothing to diminish its reputation.

Theater lovers should rush — without pause — to see fine young talent interpret one of theater’s true writing giants.

There are three more chances to see the shows, Feb. 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15, $7 for LU students, and $10 for faculty and staff. The Studio Theatre is located on the MLK Parkway feeder road on the Lamar University campus. For more, visit www.lamar.edu/theatre.

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