Graffiti Theatre

at Angel Island

The Graffiti Theatre is yet another brand-new company of transplanted actors come to Chicago to seek fame and fortune–this time from Iowa City, Iowa. If their premier production is any indication, the University of Iowa taught them more about how to pick plays (Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter’s an excellent choice) than about how to bring them to life on the stage.

The problem is that neither the director (Frank Bartella) nor the actors (Frank Adducci and Kurt Christensen) has any idea how Pinter should be performed. They all seem to think–God knows why–that Pinter should be played as loudly and with as much emotionalism as possible. Why talk when you can shout? this production asks. Why shout when you can scream and gesture wildly? Why not play Pinter ten times louder and broader than he has ever been played before?

The result is that all of the subtlety, suspense, and comedy in Pinter’s play –about a couple of lower-class hit men hanging out in a basement waiting for word from their boss about their next job–is completely lost. Clearly Bartella et al have been misled by all those commentators who point out the violence that seethes just beneath the surface of Pinter’s pauses and his characters’ odd, non sequitur-laden dialogue. Why bury all this emotion in the subtext? Bartella seems to ask. Why not drag all of it out onto the stage, where everyone can see it?

It’s a pity no one bothered to tell Bartella that what makes Pinter interesting is not what his characters say or even what they don’t say, but how much they communicate a lifetime’s worth of pain, anger, loss, and suffering in just a few words or a couple of well-placed pauses. Instead, Bartella and company play The Dumb Waiter as if it had been written by Paddy Chayefsky or Eugene O’Neill, with lots of old-fashioned Sturm und Drang and mawkish emoting.

Why didn’t someone tell Bartella that the British are a reserved people? Even the lower-class Brits who populate this play. Couldn’t he see that Pinter’s dialogue is better underplayed than overacted? Actors with a flair for communicating half-stifled emotions can make Pinter’s words sing. Actors without can’t.

It’s sad, but the actors in this production simply don’t have a gift for Pinter’s work. Neither Christensen nor Adducci has a subtle bone in his body. So anxious are they to communicate that they are the kind of aggressive toughs who would carry guns and kill for a living that the subtleties of their relationship are lost. You would never guess from the way Christensen snorts and stamps around that his character (Gus) has considerably less status than Adducci’s (Ben), that Gus is just a flunky.

Instead of working on making Gus’s relationship with Ben clear, Christensen focuses his energy on getting all the cheap laughs he can. For example, at the beginning of the play he turns Pinter’s simple stage direction–“tying shoelaces, with difficulty”–into a mighty struggle, trying again and again to lace his shoes with a pair of tipless shoelaces. After three minutes of the silly and tiresome shtick, Christensen is reduced to getting a gross-out laugh by putting the end of the shoelace in his mouth.

Adducci is no better. For no apparent reason he plays Ben as someone who is raging mad from the start and only gets louder and angrier as the play progresses.

Pinter deserves better than this. The Graffiti Theatre would have done better if they had decided to perform some play in which all this humorless snarling and angry gesturing would have been appropriate–say a stage version of one of those melodramas from the 50s (such as On the Waterfront). Or, if they were married to the idea of doing something British, why not something like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger? Instead they chose a work that requires subtlety, discipline, and masterful acting–qualities that aren’t really in their repertoire yet.

Earlier this year the Mary-Arrchie Theatre staged a deservedly praised production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party that came very close to capturing the essence of this laconic playwright’s work. Every Pinterish pause was perfectly taken. Every bit of his well-wrought dialogue perfectly interpreted. Funny when Pinter meant his work to be funny, serious when it was meant to be serious. The shoestring production compared favorably in every way to the Court Theatre’s terrific version of a dozen or so years ago.

I’m told that the members of Graffiti Theatre were inspired by the recent Mary-Arrchie Theatre production to attempt their own early Pinter play. But this is hardly the sort of auspicious beginning the founders of new theaters dream of.