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WHEN: Through Sept. 16

WHERE: Gypsy Theatre, 465 Central Ave., Fort Erie, Ont.

ADMISSION: $14 to $17 (U.S. funds)

INFO: (877) 990-7529 or (905) 871-4407

With the opening Wednesday night of Harold Pinter's "Dumb Waiter" and Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit," Gypsy Theatre provided an engaging compare-and-contrast theatrical exercise. The plays share a surface similarity, with the unfortunate characters of both uncomfortably lodged in an unfamiliar room that seems to have been designed by an anonymous power just to torment them.

It is, I would guess, this situational parallel that suggested the bringing together of these otherwise philosophically divergent plays on a double bill. With the plays together running close to three hours, it makes for a fairly hefty night of theater.

Pinter's play, an early work written in 1957, finds Gus (J. Mark Hand) and Ben (Kevin Burnett), two killers in the hire of an unnamed organization, nervously waiting in a room for their victim to arrive. While they wait the gabby, perpetually puzzled Gus engages a reluctant Ben in some of Pinter's most comically brilliant small talk. They debate the relative merits of the phrases "light the kettle" and "put on the kettle," for example, or launch into absurd question-and-counter-question exchanges that recall Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's on first?"

The dumbwaiter itself interrupts this odd, meandering dialogue - one that includes everything from detailed descriptions of crockery to expressions of outrage at child cat killers. Once the dumbwaiter begins sending down its requests for food - "soup of the day, liver and onions, jam tart" - Ben and Gus are cast further into a world where old-fashioned human rationality simply doesn't apply.

Gypsy's production, under the direction of John Dalingwater, obscures much of the sense of threat and instability that stirs so menacingly beneath Pinter's comic ploys. Ben's Burnett is so tightly wound for the first half of the play that his snapping, near-manic gestures dominate the very anxiety they are supposed to express. Later, when he and Hand get in better sync, Ben's glass-shard personality is allowed to come to the fore, and we get some vague sense of how Pinter conceived this character.

Hand's Gus has a related problem. No doubt, Hand creates a very entertaining and engaging character who at times lists toward a smartly contained slap-stick (in the opening scene when Gus fixes his shoe by dancing on one foot, for example). But Pinter must have intented Gus' chronic fretting - expressed through the refrain, "I've been meaning to ask you" - to touch upon other, more disturbing levels of consciousness. A modified Laurel and Hardy-style approach to the character doesn't get us there.

With a very trimly balanced "No Exit" following this skewed Pinter, the dangers inherent in this compare-and-contrast game become apparent. In Sartre's play - written in 1944 during the German occupation of France when the author was engaged in the resistence - the three principles are locked in a room that is their own personal hell. Dalingwater's direction here is sharp, clean and exhilarating. He has no second agenda buzzing beneath the dialogue here: everyone (except the valet to this custom-made chamber of torment) is deep into Sartre's rigorous brand of human responsibility.

Cradeau (played delightfully by an only partially unwound Burnett), Inez (Suzette Araujo) and Estelle (Lada Darewych) spend the play rooting out the individual inauthentic acts of their lives that landed them in this terrible place. Although it has its moments of wonderful humor, it is a play about the agony of self-revelation and how tightly this special sort of Sartrian soul-searching is twisted into efforts to communicate with one's fellow humans.

As Cradeau says late in the play, it is far better to endure all of hell's "fiendish gadgets" than to be unredeemably false oneself and be left in a room for all eternity (and for Sartre, eternity is now) with false furniture, false art and, most hideously, false companions. "Hell," says Cradeau near the end, "is other people."

After getting over the shock of the re-appearance of Burnett and Hand (whose Valet is funny in an inappropriate Peter Sellers kind of way), the play drives forward with an increasingly subtle Burnett shedding mannerisms as he goes, and Araujo turning in a spectacular, if over-loud rendition of the mad German lesbian Inez. Darewych, as the spoiled, self-obsessed Estelle, creates a plausible quasi-twinky who can convincingly deliver lines like, "You don't know how irritating it is to answer questions I don't understand." However, the long, hateful monologue where she looks down on earth one last time to see her boyfriend succumb to an old enemy is a bit beyond her.

This play is thick with capsule Sartre insights on the nature of existence. Cradeau suddenly realizes that life without a break is a hell: the eye must blink so that it provides those necessary "1,000 little respites" from life. "One always dies too soon - or too late" is Inez's comment on the situation. And Estelle adds this strange little affirmation of the arabesque, when she sees that this one-room hell seems designed by a demented Euclid: "I always loathed angles."

"The Dumb Waiter," with its muddled characters lacking even an inkling of self-analysis, might have been seen as a mute answer to Sartre's constant meddling with existence. In the Pinter play, the dumbwaiter somehow has rigged the game, just as the demon who designed the hell-room in "No Exit" sets the rules of play. In Dalingwater's interpretation, however, Ben and Gus are simply too far out of the loop, the hidden terror of their situation lost in the fast-moving pace of the comedy.

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