By Jonathan Kalb
By Harold Pinter
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 47th St.
Old Times (1971) belongs to that group of now-classic, startlingly acrid, bottomlessly mysterious plays such as The Homecoming, The Birthday Party and No Man’s Land that first established Pinter’s reputation as a major dramatist. I’ve always admired this particular play on paper: its vicious efficiency, the subtle brutality of its domestic power struggle, the way it deploys unreliable memory as a tool of suspense, seduction and psychic murder all at once. Old Times hasn’t had a major NY revival in decades, and I’ve seen it produced only once in a mediocre college production, so I was looking forward to this Roundabout Theatre Company production directed by Douglas Hodge. My reaction to the show is mixed. There are some serious pleasures, but also a few hard lessons.
Pleasures first. All three actors are splendidly precise and temperamentally attuned to their tricky roles, and Hodge has a fine sense of Pinteresque timing. Clive Owen as Deeley and Eve Best as Anna both possess that rare quicksilver volatility necessary to make Pinter’s abrupt tonal shifts believable and potent. Now congenial, now caustic, now flirtatious, now obnoxious, they are experts at the frequent no-warning shifts that demarcate the weird power game at the center of the drama—an ominous, indefinite struggle to possess (or define, or re-create) Kate, Deeley’s wife, through ambiguous words and battling memories. That's all handled with wonderfully appallingly ruthlessness. Kelly Reilly understands exactly the sort of coy neutrality needed to play Kate, a character whose chief task is to appear lazily lovely and emotionally noncommittal until she inexplicably opens up in the end with a single long speech that suddenly chills us by revealing how confidently independent she has been all along. Reilly performs this speech with magnificently vain aplomb.
To everyone’s credit, the production keeps the plot’s deliberately mysterious questions open, resisting facile answers or explanations. What really happened 20 years ago that all three characters recount in such different terms? We can’t and shouldn’t know that for sure. Their stories don’t match up, except that sometimes they do, in part, so one can’t help wondering whether what’s going on is mere carelessness, or the fallibility of memory, or maybe something more sinister such as a deliberate attempt to falsify the past to gain an emotional edge. Still another possibility is that the whole horrid spectacle is possibly some bizarre form of creative therapy, as in Pinter’s The Lover, in which a marriage threatened by boredom is freshened up with an elaborate and risky game of “pretend.”
Now the lessons. This production makes regrettably clear that Old Times is a chamber piece. It needs the physical intimacy of a small theater to adequately convey the subtle shifts, savage heat and panicky sweat of its weird relational crisis. In the cavernous 740-seat American Airlines Theater, the dialogue comes off as grandiloquent, exaggerated, even turgid at times because Pinter’s carefully honed repartee booms and echoes bombastically when it should slice and gut like a swiped scalpel.
Christine Jones’s set makes matters worse, alas. Pinter’s stage directions call for just a sketchily suggested “converted farmhouse”: a window up center, a door and a few pieces of spare modern furniture. Jones supplies a night-sky backdrop fantastically ornamented with a bright graphic of concentric light circles expanding, ripple-like, to the edges of the huge proscenium. This brash flourish reads as an apology for the large venue, a crass overcompensation no doubt also meant to reassure the puzzled that the enigmatic drama indeed has cosmic implications. Jones also replaced the central upstage window with a large rectangular slab of ice, helpfully clarifying that the characters are not actually warm.
For all this, I was glad to see Old Times performed by such fine, committed, and discerning actors. Moreover, it’s a testament to the text’s enduring power that its dread, suspense and mystery resound through the noise of this Broadway bombast.
photos copyright Joan Marcus 2015.