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THEATER REVIEW: “Two by Pinter” sparkles at North Coast Rep

Playwright Harold Pinter likes to make people wait. Not unlike Samuel Beckett in that regard, his characters talk around issues, ignore them or engage in the pregnant pause often, which can either ratchet up the tension or just annoy the audience.

North Coast Repertory Theatre offers two early Pinter one-acts – both billed as comedies – that titillate, shock, surprise. Both are well-directed by David Ellenstein.

In “The Lover,” we meet Richard (Mark Pinter -- no relation) and Sarah (Elaine Rivkin), who dress as elegantly as they live in a lovely house in Windsor.

“Is your lover coming today?” Richard asks casually, as he prepares for work.

“Yes,” she answers.

But there’s no guilt here, because she knows Richard has his own dalliances with “a common slut.”

After the mailman (Richard Baird) arrives, leeringly asking whether she wants some cream (“Mrs. Owens just had three jars. Clotted.”), she changes to another elegant outfit and the lover arrives: Mac, in leather jacket, driving cap and lower-class accent. This is her husband in another guise.

It’s clear that these two are engaged in elaborate and imaginative role-playing games, emphasizing seduction over sexual congress (the only actual act takes place discreetly and invisibly behind the sofa).

“The Lover” suggests questions about fantasy, reality and marriage in this charming and amusing diversion that captivates and enthralls.

In “The Dumb Waiter,” Marty Burnett’s lovely Windsor set reverses and becomes a dingy and shabby basement in Birmingham with two beds and a dumb waiter in the wall, where hitmen Ben (Frank Corrado) and Gus (Richard Baird) await instructions about their next hit. Ben reads the paper while Gus spends an extraordinary amount of time tying his shoe and asking endless (and annoying) questions.

Once in a while the dumb waiter descends with a cryptic order for food – “Soup of the day. Liver and onions. Jam tart” – and returns before Ben and Gus can put anything on the tray – as if they had the items requested.

Tension mounts as time passes, tempers flare and the dumb waiter keeps asking for food – until the show finally reaches its shocking conclusion.

These are excellent productions, performed by consummate actors wonderfully directed by Ellenstein. Pinter (seen previously in “The Lion In Winter” and “Becky’s New Car”) plays brilliantly off Rivkin, an in-demand Chicagoan whose beauty and coquettish manner make the character of Sarah easy to believe. Baird is terrific in his cameo.

Corrado (seen previously in “Madagascar” and “The Drawer Boy”) is excellent as the steely Ben; Baird exactly right as younger nervous-nelly Gus.

Bravo also to the design team heading by Burnett and including Renetta Lloyd’s costumes, Matt Novotny’s lighting and Aaron Rumley’s sound design.

The details

“Two By Pinter” plays through June 17 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Wednesday and Sunday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets, call 858-481-1055 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.