The text of the play starts with a description of the set. The stage is designed to look like a basement room. There are two beds against the back wall and a "serving hatch" (85), later revealed to be a dumb waiter, is on the wall between the beds. There is a door on the left of the stage that leads to a kitchen and bathroom (these rooms are never seen, but imagined to exist when the actors exit stage left). A door on the right of the stage leads to the hallway.
Following the scene description, the play begins with a lengthy stage direction. Two men, Ben and Gus, are onstage. Ben is lying on the bed on the left reading a newspaper; Gus is sitting on the bed on the right, trying to tie his shoes. Gus finishes tying his shoes and begins to walk to the door on the left side of the stage, but he feels something strange in his shoes. He pulls a matchbox out of one shoe and a cigarette packet out of the other. Ben makes a show of watching Gus and then returning to his newspaper. Once Gus has put both of his shoes back on, he exits stage left. Ben slams down his newspaper, but when Gus does not react from the other room, he resumes reading. Gus attempts to flush the toilet, but it will not function, so he returns to the main room.
The silence is broken by Ben loudly exclaiming about a story in the newspaper: an old man was run over when he crawled under a truck to cross the street. The men discuss the article excitedly, then Gus returns to the bathroom to try to flush the toilet again. It does not flush. Gus returns, and the men discuss making tea. Gus describes the cups and plates in the kitchen at length, until Ben cuts him off tersely to prompt him to go make the tea. Gus asks if Ben has any cigarettes, but Ben doesn't respond until bursting out passionately about another news story. In this news story, a female child reportedly killed a cat. The two men decide that the girl's older brother must have actually killed it. Gus changes the subject to the faulty toilet in the bathroom, and then he begins to remark on the decoration of the room they're in. He muses about a picture of cricket players hanging on the wall and bemoans the fact that there is no window. Ben criticizes Gus for complaining about their job, which is not yet clear to the audience, saying that he gets plenty of time off. He suggests that Gus needs to have interests.
Gus compares the current room to "the last place [they] were in" (91) and remarks mysteriously that "He doesn't seem to bother much about our comfort these days" (91). Gus prepares to make tea, but then he pauses to ask Ben why he stopped in the middle of the road while they were driving in the car in the morning. Ben replies that he thought Gus was asleep. Gus presses Ben further, describing how Ben stopped the car and simply sat there, "like [he was] waiting for something" (91). Ben finally responds that they were "too early" (92), which he knew from talking with someone on the phone, but he won't explain further. Ben takes this to mean that someone had to vacate the room before they arrived.
Ben bursts out loudly again about something he sees in the newspaper, but Gus quickly changes the subject to whether they could go to a football (soccer) game the next day. Ben repeatedly tells Gus that Villa will be playing away, and they disagree over whether they saw Villa play at a certain match in the past.
Suddenly, an envelope is slid under the door to the hallway. Ben encourages Gus to pick it up; when they find that it is sealed with nothing written on the outside, Ben tells Gus to open it. When Gus opens it, he finds that it contains twelve loose matches. Ben tells Gus to go open the door to see who put the envelope under the door. Gus is scared to do so and tries to put off opening the door. Finally, he takes out a revolver from under his pillow, opens the door, looks out, and then closes the door. Telling Ben that nobody was there, he replaces the revolver under his pillow.
The Dumb Waiter begins with a long stretch of stage direction before any character speaks. Using more stage directions gives the playwright more control; the director and actors have narrower choices in terms of their staging and characterization. Beginning with stage directions also allows the actors to establish their personalities and relationship through their movement rather than through dialogue. The first things we, as readers or audience members, learn about Gus and Ben is that Ben is reading a newspaper while Gus is "tying his shoelaces, with difficulty" (85). This establishes Ben as the more intellectual of the two, and it even makes Gus seem childlike or stupid. Additionally, they establish separate and clearly defined spaces by each sitting on their own beds from the outset.
Many of Pinter's plays have been categorized in the genre Theatre of the Absurd. Absurdist plays often evoke themes of powerlessness, meaninglessness, emptiness, and mystery. The play's absurdism begins in the opening stage direction. The moment when Ben takes off his shoe, removes a matchbox, and then takes off his other shoe to find a cigarette box is unexpected, comedic, and ironic. This moment sets the absurd tone that will remain through the rest of the play, especially with regard to Ben and Gus's strange and repetitive interactions with props.
The title of the play, The Dumb Waiter, has multiple meanings. The first is the most obvious: the title stresses the importance of the dumb waiter as a prop, and symbol, in the play. Additionally, when the title is broken down, it foreshadows some of the play's themes. The word dumb can signify stupidity or voicelessness. Both of these result in a lack of clear communication, which the men experience while being trapped in a basement; messages from the people above come to the men sporadically, and they seem unable to contact Wilson directly. The next word, waiter, has both the meaning of a server in a restaurant and of a person who waits. The men are made to act as waiters when the dumb waiter starts to bring messages, but they are also literally waiting for Wilson to contact them or a target to show up at their room. Therefore, the word waiter alone points to themes of time and lack of control. Overall, the title could be taken to have a neutral tone when taken at face value or a loaded, negative tone when broken down into its components.
Before the dumb waiter itself is even introduced, Pinter presents the audience with a prop symbolizing lack of communication in an absurd fashion. The prop in question is the envelope full of matches, slid under the door of the basement room. An envelope is generally a vessel for communication across long distances, so an envelope being slid directly under one's door is already a form of hindered communication. However, the envelope contains no message, except perhaps only a symbolic one, which pushes the scene into the absurd. The men end up knowing nothing about the person who sent the message or what they intended to communicate; though Gus is able to put this mystery aside for a time, he brings it back up near the end of the play when his lack of knowledge about the situation they are in drives him to extreme agitation.
Nearly every conversation between Ben and Gus devolves into argument, and the basis of many of these arguments is the differences in their memories. For example, when the men talk about football, something they both seem to like, they repeatedly get into small squabbles over whether they attended a particular game together, whether a certain penalty was deserved, and whether the team was "playing away" (94). These arguments show a certain closeness in their relationship, since they obviously have shared experiences and interests, but also add tension and negative energy to the suspenseful plot. Ben is generally the more negative one in these arguments, calling out Gus for his forgetfulness, but the audience will see later in the play that Ben's memory is also fallible.