South Camden Theatre Company (SCTC) opens its 14th season with a double bill of David Mamet’s The Duck Variations and Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. This pairing of early-career plays allows audiences to discover how two of the 20th century’s most important dramatists formed their voices.
Those who primarily know Pinter as a playwright of middle-class malaise or Mamet as a right-wing ideologue might be surprised at what they find. The two works contrast sharply with dramas like Betrayal and Oleanna, which both happen to be running concurrently at other Philly-area theaters. I personally prefer the writers in their Angry Young Man modes, before celebrity and expectation somewhat dulled their worldviews.
The young playwrights
Yet neither work fully satisfies. The Duck Variations — Mamet’s first produced play, dating from 1972 — often feels like an extended playwriting exercise as the author continually refracts the same experience from every possible angle. The Dumb Waiter bears many of the trademarks that came to define Pinter’s mature writing, with pregnant pauses and coded dialogue galore, but it owes too great a debt to formulaic crime dramas to seem wholly original.
Still, there’s something inviting about the youthful energy contained in both plays. Mamet displays the legendary knack for rapid-fire repartee that would make him famous. For a young playwright — he wrote The Duck Variations at 25 — he also shows a keen understanding of the aging process, as George and Emil, his two octogenarian characters, infuse their banter with wry observations about the last chapters of life.
Similarly, the early Pinter lacks the self-conscious sheen of his later plays, which often come across as needlessly arch. Watching Betrayal at Lantern Theater Company a few weeks ago, I failed to detect much writing that sounded like anything an actual person would say. The Dumb Waiter brims with unforced familiarity between Gus and Ben, the two hitmen who occupy a windowless basement room, awaiting their next assignment.
Punching above its weight
SCTC’s production combines the plays into a breathless evening. Randall McCann (who also serves as codirector, with Brad Reiter) and Michael Tamin Yurcaba excel as the codgers who inhabit Mamet’s park bench (superbly designed by Robert Bingaman), philosophizing as they feed the titular ducks. Although Mamet remains cagey about the length and depth of their friendship, McCann and Yurcuba suggest a long-shared history through both effusion and stillness.
McCann returns as Ben, the elder statesman among the hired guns in The Dumb Waiter, opposite Dan Hickey’s Gus. The casting isn’t ideal in terms of age — Pinter clearly wants to reinforce a generational divide between the two men, and but the two actors here are roughly contemporaries. Yet Hickey brings a wiry virulence to the role than nicely contrasts McCann’s stoic, almost serene sense of experience.
Together, their long-extended scene crackles with unspoken tension, and their bond deepens as Gus grows ever more loquacious. McCann and Reiter keep the pace fleet and fresh, all while respecting the speculative silences embedded by Pinter. The overall effect leads to the unnerving, masterfully orchestrated conclusion.
SCTC husbands its limited resources well, with especially vivid lighting by Joshua Samors in the Pinter. These re-examinations prove the small, scrappy company from Camden punches above its weight.
What, When, Where
The Duck Variations and The Dumb Waiter. By David Mamet and Harold Pinter; Randall McCann and Brad Reiter directed. South Camden Theatre Company. Through March 2, 2019, at the Waterfront South Theatre, 400 Jasper Street, Camden, New Jersey. (866) 811-4111 or southcamdentheatre.org.