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Tv Review : A Freakily Fun Trip In 'Dumb Waiter'

May 12, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Harold Pinter and Robert Altman--what a video tag-team!

Pinter's the dramatist who relishes menace, guilt and gloom. Altman's the movie director whose favorite characters are escapees from the pages of a Who's Who of psychotherapy. The result of this inspired pairing is "The Dumb Waiter," a spooky, unsettling adaptation of Pinter's 1960 one-act play that airs on ABC tonight at 10 p.m. (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) as the first in the network's ambitious series of one-hour dramatic specials.

Tom Conti and John Travolta co-star as a pair of hit men holed up in the kitchen of a deserted lodging house, waiting for their next assignment. Altman gives the setting the air of a thriller, offering us visual clues--a half-completed jigsaw puzzle, a rusty dumbwaiter that suddenly springs to life--that only heighten our curiosity. After a while, we're more intrigued by this odd couple than by who the target of their mission is.

As a tough Cockney rube named Ben, Travolta is grumpy and self-absorbed, getting a boyish thrill out of drawing his gun, even if he's just as eager to point the muzzle at his head as at any imagined adversary. As his older partner, Conti is timid and fastidious--when he opens a mysterious envelope, he holds it at arm's length, as if he were expecting it to explode.

If Travolta is merely competent in the part (though he does pull off a cheeky homage to James Cagney), Conti is a delight. With his expressive, hound-dog features, he can get a laugh with a raised eyebrow, while his querulous voice is full of ghostly emotion, even when he's merely describing a collection of crockery.

Of course, if you're expecting Pinter to deliver a big, punchy finale, you're probably tuned to the wrong station. But Altman does such a sly job of eavesdropping on these strange characters that you feel you've witnessed a magic act where the ritual sleight-of-hand is more fascinating than the trick itself.

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