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Theatre in Review: Old Times (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

Clive Owen. Photo: Joan Marcus

Memory is both a weapon and a trap in Harold Pinter's Old Times, which is being presented in a production that, paradoxically, both supports and sabotages the author's enigmatic, yet highly dramatic, text. The good news first: The director, Douglas Hodge, has assembled a trio of actors who are more than capable of teasing out the sheathed aggressions and sinister evasions buried inside words, that, on the page, could appear to be nothing more than casual chatter. Here, from the minute the curtain rises, there's an unspecified tension in the air, a sense of a string being pulled ever more tautly even as the breaking point continually recedes.

We are in the country home, near the ocean, of Deeley and Kate, a married couple. They are expecting the arrival of Anna, Kate's friend of many years earlier. (Actually, they haven't long to wait; Anna is already present, upstage of them, apparently looking out a window.) Already, suspicion is afoot. Deeley has never heard of Anna before, and he wants to know why. Kate, however, is practiced in the art of deflecting direct questions. When Deeley, his frustration rising, asks, "Did you think of her as your best friend?," Kate replies that Anna was her only friend, adding, with total, yet maddening, reasonableness, "If you only have one of something, you can't say it's the best of anything."

Once Anna appears, on a visit from Italy, where she now lives with her husband, the battle is truly joined. She begins rattling off memories of her time with Kate, when both were young secretaries in the city. "Goodness knows what excitement in store," she says, "I mean the sheer expectation of it all, the looking-forwardness of it all, and so poor, but to be poor and young, and a girl, in London then." Anna also demonstrates an intimacy with Kate that suggests a past sexual connection between them. Hodge stages a most telling moment in which Anna and Kate, downstage, on separate divans, stare at each other; it's a look that seems both unreadable and fraught with meaning.

But then a curious thing begins to happen. Deeley offers his competing memories of Kate, and everyone's recollections begin to fold into each other. Deeley recalls meeting Kate at a "fleapit" showing the film Odd Man Out (a most felicitous title, mirroring Deeley's unease), continuing the story until it ends up with them in bed together. Later, Anna recalls a night when she and Kate spontaneously took a bus to an obscure part of the city and saw....Odd Man Out. Kate comments very early on that Anna once stole her underwear, an act that Anna admits to. But then Deeley recalls meeting a woman in a pub and going off with her to a party where he spent the evening looking up her skirt -- and that woman is Anna. Anna doesn't dispute this, but she also says, upsetting Deeley, "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them, so they take place."

There you have it: Memory -- porous, treacherous, infinitely malleable -- becomes the main method of engagement in Deeley and Anna's battle for possession of Kate; it is also an ever-shifting landscape in which all three characters seek the upper hand. Even a sequence featuring snatches of American popular standards seems fraught with aggression, especially a selection from "They Can't Take That Away From Me," in which each line is sung alternately by Anna and Deeley -- to assert that one's memory is to seize power, over the conversation, or the household, or Kate herself.

From the get-go, there's a haunted look in Clive Owen's eye, as if he knows, even before Anna appears, that his marriage has entered new and treacherous terrain. He is especially effective when asserting his sexual dominance of Kate, in that story about the cinema visit that ended with "our naked bodies met -- hers cool, warm, highly agreeable" -- or in a frankly lascivious discussion of Kate's behavior when taking a bath. As Anna, Eve Best manages the nifty trick of seeming airily unconcerned and ready to pounce, all at once; when she moves close to Kate, examining her face in a manner both aroused and proprietorial, you begin to understand Deeley's sense of alarm. Kelly Reilly's Kate disguises her high state of alert to everything behind an impassive fa├žade. If her reading of the play's final big speech disappoints slightly, the fault, I suspect, lies not with her, but Pinter. Having constructed this elegant triangle, he doesn't seem to have found a way to bring the situation to a fully satisfying conclusion. For the same reason, the sight of Deeley in tears at the finale doesn't quite convince; they seem arbitrary, not connected to the experienced infighter we have seen all evening.

The real problems with this Old Times begin with the bewildering set design by Christine Jones. The script calls for a sparely rendered farmhouse setting; Jones places a few pieces of furniture in front of an upstage drop that depicts an enormous collection of concentric circles -- rather like a giant vortex. There is also an enormous vertical block of ice that stands in for the shower, where Kate goes for a clean-up. The stereo appears to be placed on a stone ridge at stage right. I'm not saying that Old Times must always be done with a naturalistic design -- I've seen photos of a 2004 Donmar Warehouse production that combined an almost interior look with projections -- but it surely isn't right to when the scenery overwhelms and draws focus away from the actors, which is what happens here. Even more oddly, Thom Yorke, of the group Radiohead, has been engaged to provide incidental music that alternates what sounds like whales in distress, along with the sort of pounding percussion most often heard in Jason Bourne films. Pinter is the poet of silence, of pauses so pregnant they fairly burst with meaning. Why was such a cacophony deemed necessary?

Fortunately, Constance Hoffman's costumes are just right for the characters, and Japhy Weideman's lighting goes a long way toward carving the actors out of the set. But it is baffling why Hodge -- who, we are told, knew Pinter well and worked with him often -- would supply such probing direction of the actors while signing off on such an inappropriate design.

I wonder if, somewhere along the line, someone decided that this brief, highly intimate play simply needed to be blown up to fit the stage of a midsize Broadway house -- thus, the highly assertive set design and intrusive music. If so, it represents a major miscalculation on the director's part. He had at his disposal an excellent Pinter text and three highly skilled actors, which alone were enough to guarantee a fascinating, chilling evening in the theatre. The visual and aural distractions diminish the work. Why this is not obvious is as mysterious as anything in Pinter's drama. -- David Barbour

(7 October 2015)

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