Small Talk

“Frankness at all counts is the means to a healthy marriage.”

Elaine Rivkin and Mark Pinter play fantasy lovers for each other in The Lover.
  • Elaine Rivkin and Mark Pinter play fantasy lovers for each other in The Lover.

San Diego must be allergic to Harold Pinter, he’s staged so rarely in these parts. In his plays, which earned him the Nobel Prize, the subtext is the star. On the surface, people gab about this and that, as if small talk — hardly the staple of theater — were the best they can muster. Yet, beneath the mundane banter, great menacing sea beasts prowl where sunlight never penetrates.

They become most evident in the famous Pinteresque “pauses.” He dared to stage a disc jockey’s greatest fear: dead air. The action stops. Characters refuse — or fear — to push a thought or an emotion further. In the silences that follow, Pinter puts the real drama.

The North Coast Rep’s offering a Pinter sampler: two early works, The Lover (1963) and The Dumb Waiter (1960). In each, a person becomes two people at the same time.

The Lover. In an elegantly furnished home, a British couple, married ten years, begin their day: Richard for work; Sarah for — he says without blinking — an afternoon with her lover. “Frankness at all counts,” he adds, as if to justify his strange serenity, “is the means to a healthy marriage.”

At North Coast, Mark Pinter and Elaine Rivkin play Richard and Sarah. He also plays Sarah’s “lover” — or lovers, actually, since he shape-shifts into different ones at will — all of whom are Richard. And Rivkin plays Sarah and improvises Richard’s fantasy lovers.

So, Pinter sets up a Jeckyll/Hyde conceit: staid married couple by night; passionate lovers by day. They vowed to stay “in character” and not cross over from fiction to fact. In a way they resemble that famous drawing of the rabbit that, looked at another way, is also a duck. And the mind won’t let you see both at once.

But then Pinter goes Pinteresque. What if the imaginary lover threatens to upset the “balance” and talk like the husband?

In the aptly named The Dumb Waiter, Ben and Gus do double duty as well. They wait in a basement — old tiles caulked with brownish mold — for the next assignment from their “organization.” Though both are out of the loop, Ben seems to grasp certain things. But Gus fumbles with his shoelaces and gives the impression that they were short of meat when they made his taco.

They talk about soccer and “ponged” sheets and the “deficient ballcock” in the lavatory. Amid hints of Waiting for Godot and Sartre’s No Exit (in which “hell is other people”), they perform unintended vaudeville routines — Ben as the straight man, Gus as, well, the “dumb” waiter. They could be Laurel and Hardy. And, like Richard and Sarah, they, too, must improvise when a dumbwaiter on the wall sends down orders from an unbelievably eclectic restaurant — since each requests a different national cuisine.

Pinter strikes again. The routines are funny. But Ben and Gus aren’t clowns. They’re hit men. Or alternating clowns and hit men. When not performing an absurdist circus, they shine black pistols and talk of past kills.

The acting at NCRT is uniformly fine. Pinter and Rivkin expose a fragile bond beneath their sophisticated banter. Frank Corrado (Ben) and Richard Baird (Gus) devolve from unsophisticated into primitive. Renetta Lloyd’s costumes and Aaron Rumley’s sounds (especially the recalcitrant ballcock) are appropriate, and Marty Burnett’s scene change — a 15-minute flip from swank to squalor — is a wonder.

New Village Arts’ “Ensemble Project” began with the playwright, Suzanne Bachner, interviewing every actor in the company. Some playwrights write a character with a specific actor in mind. Here, the actors generate the characters, and Bachner wrote Brilliant Mistake with each in mind. The cart-before-the-horse process sounds fascinating and was obviously exciting for the participants. But the opening-night performance looked like a work-in-progress, not a world premiere, with much more work needed.

Cameron Nolan (Daren Scott, best of show and one of the few actors who delivered lines at a human speed) needs to discover his real mother’s identity. He won’t “exist,” he’s convinced, until he knows. So he goes to Mitzi Jackson. The flamboyant “finder of lost loves” tracks her down and Cameron — née Lawrence Jones — learns the meaning of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The playwright knows how to construct scenes and write snappy dialogue. She’s also adept at zany twists and wacko turns, from the sexually starved to alien abductees.

But she’s working with a large ensemble cast — 14? — and must include them all. As a result, the hour-and-a-half-long first act has at least 20 mini-scenes that wear an audience down. And the second spends much time tying up loose ends, including a gratuitous moment of sudden seriousness. The script has far too many trees and too little forest.

Bachner and New Village could have a crisp, potentially touching, absurdist comedy inside this one. To carve it out, they’ll have to reverse the process: excise scenes and characters, cut to 90 minutes, and make the play itself the thing. ■

The Lover and The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter

North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Directed by David Ellenstein; cast: Elaine Rivkin, Mark Pinter, Richard Baird, Frank Corrado; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Renetta Lloyd; lighting, Matt Novotny; sound, Aaron Rumley

Playing through June 17; Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7:00 p.m. 858-481-2155

Brilliant Mistake, by Suzanne Bachner

New Village Arts, 2787 B State Street, Carlsbad

Directed by Bachner; cast: Adam Brick, John DeCarlo, Manny Fernandes, Kelly Iverson, Kristianne Kurner, Justin Lang, Kyle Lucy, Jack Missett, Frances Regal, Chris Renda, Daren Scott, Samuel Sherman; scenic design, Tim Wallace; costumes, Nadia Volvic; lighting, Chris Renda; sound, Tim Wallace, Samuel Sherman

Playing through June 24; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinees Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-433-3245

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