First produced in 1996, "Ashes to Ashes" is one of Pinter's most recent works of significant length, and is being staged Fridays and Saturdays at 10 p.m., following the theater's production of Betrayal. Taken together, the classic Betrayal can be viewed as the "book," to extend the metaphor, that the one-act plays bookend, and the three offer an interesting perspective on the playwright's progress from bold apprentice to confident journeyman to experimenting master of his craft.
"Ashes to Ashes" makes you wonder if you've walked in on the theater's Betrayal, as it stars two of the same actors and turns on Pinter's pet theme of infidelity and marital tensions. The play finds a married couple in their bedclothes, with Devlin (Tim Habeger) standing at window, and Rebecca (Mary Lynn Owen) seated and clenching her body like a ball. At first Rebecca seems to be confessing a rough-sex tryst.
But as usual for the playwright, things aren't as they appear -- or rather, what's apparent can have multiple interpretations. Rebecca's conversation keeps returning to an incident involving a train platform and babies torn from screaming mothers, and it's not at all clear if she's describing an atrocity from her past or a dreamed episode reflecting an inner turmoil or incident. Owen conveys despair beneath Rebecca's initially calm exterior, and ends the play on a wrenching note that can leave you shuddering.
"Do you feel you're being hypnotized?" Devlin asks her, suggesting psychological roots to the play. Habeger portrays another of Pinter's icy husbands, one hand in the pocket of his robe, the other clutching a glass of orange juice that may or may not be spiked. Habeger's Devlin is so emotionally reined-in that he seems scarcely present. Devlin's feelings should be simmering, but Habeger sets them at too low a boil.
"The Dumb Waiter" offers a very different kind of two-actor dynamic. Two people we eventually realize are triggermen kill time in an English flat while preparing for their next hit. In its depiction of hired killers rehearsing their standard operating procedures and chatting about trivia, "The Dumb Waiter" may have been an inspiration for Pulp Fiction -- especially considering that a 1987 video version of the play featured John Travolta.
Ironic treatments of criminals have become commonplace, but PushPush offers an unusual variation with a distaff version of the play, with a female director and cast. Perhaps by giving "Gus" (Julie Dansby) and "Ben" (Stacy Melich) white shirts and black suits, director Shelby Hofer is nodding backward at the film.
They discuss snack food and tabloid stories, and Gus' idle speculations about their employer irritate her more seasoned partner. Things take a baffling turn when they begin receiving cryptic messages from another part of the building via the titular dumb waiter. Pinter might be making a snobbish suggestion that the serving classes were born to follow orders, whether they work for restaurants or crime syndicates.
The chicks-with-guns concept for "The Dumb Waiter" has mixed results, offering a kicky view of the material and an intriguingly hard-boiled performance from Melich. But in playing dim Gus, Dansby comes across simply as ditzy -- imagine Lisa Kudrow as "La Femme Nikita" -- and it's impossible to imagine her carrying out the bloody tasks the play alludes to. Neither of their British accents sound very credible, but their teamwork and the strange, sudden ending can both be enjoyed.
Each less than an hour, PushPush's "The Dumb Waiter" and "Ashes to Ashes" offer interesting stages of Harold Pinter's evolution, moving from a genre-influenced situational mystery to psychological enigma that's less easily classified. "Ashes" is a more successful production than "Waiter," but taken with Betrayal, each work informs the others and adds more layers of meaning to be found in the playwright's trademark pauses.
"Ashes to Ashes" plays through Nov. 18 at PushPush Theater, 1123 Zonolite Road, Suite 3, with performances at 10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. "The Dumbwaiter" plays through Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. Mon.-Wed.. Both shows $10, $25 for all three, including Betrayal. 404-892-7876.