Is there anything more delicious than Harold Pinter done well? When the show’s funny and weird and a polite sense of dread hangs over everything like a sinister odor?
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Old Times, directed by Michael Kahn, is as immaculate as Walt Spangler’s blindingly white, ultra-modern set. The beauty of Mr. Kahn’s staging lies in how cleanly and wickedly he plunges into the messy imprecision of memory.
Memory figures prominently in Mr. Pinter’s work, in particular those recollections you just cannot shake, the ones that allow you to drift back into a time where everything was certain and knowable. Our memories tell us who we are and who we were. But, Mr. Pinter seems to say, memories shape-shift and are unfixed. We may find truth and comfort in our recollections, but these reconstructions of the past can never entirely be trusted.
Written in 1970, Old Times is one of Mr. Pinter’s most satisfying memory plays, with the careful combustion of its language and moments of almost deranged humor. It takes place in a single room in a single evening, where married couple Deeley (Steven Culp) and Kate (Tracy Lynn Middendorf) smoke and banter while waiting for her old friend Anna (Holly Twyford) to arrive for a visit.
The cracks in their composed union are exposed when Anna shows up. At first, they seem like an odd pairing—Kate all blonde and serene and remote, in contrast to Anna being dark-haired and severe, expressive and extravagant in speech and gesture. Yet, something passed between them 20 years ago, something intense and engulfing that makes Deeley wonder if he really knows anything at all about his wife past or present.
While Kate perches still and just-so on the white couch, Anna and Deeley civilly battle for possession of her. They spar in a darkly comical “sing off” where they try to jog Kate’s memory by belting out such standards as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Blue Moon” with escalating competitiveness.
Yet the real battlefield is their shared past. Deeley stakes his territory by telling a cozy story about how he and Kate first met on a hot summer’s day at a movie theater showing “Odd Man Out.” Anna trumps this memory by saying she and Kate had seen the movie together first, and noting that “there are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.”
These odd-man-out feelings only increase when he and Anna swap anecdotes about perhaps knowing each other long ago. Deeley relates with salacious relish a story about seeing her at a party and freely looking up her skirt, a tale that becomes disturbing and taboo when Anna informs him she was wearing Kate’s underwear at the time.
With Kate, the memories Anna and Deeley recall in such detail she can barely hold onto at all. She drifts in and out, at one point not even being able to pinpoint what arts she liked when living the carefree single life in London with Anna.
The power shifts from masculine to feminine in the second act when Kate willfully allows herself to be led down memory lane with Anna. Kate shakes off her languor and trailing sentences and takes control, giving her version of past events that both contradict and complement what has been said before and suggest that the two friends seamlessly shared identities as well as underwear.
His sense of entitlement and sureness revoked, Deeley emerges from this evening a fractured man. Mr. Pinter does not give Old Times a tidy ending, just a blinding flash of what might happen to these three people now that long-held illusions are shattered.
The trio of actors handles the intricacies of Mr. Pinter’s dialogue with intelligence and grace. Mr. Culp is the audience’s way into the play, since the world of Anna and Kate is too insular to welcome visitors, and he moves from assurance to jealous resentment with dexterity. Miss Middendorf provides a fascinating, cleanly-etched portrait of a dream, a woman perhaps fashioned out of bits and pieces of other people’s recollections. Miss Twyford skillfully uses the devices of comedy—double takes, asides, and hyperbolic body language—to make Anna as quicksilver and erratic as memory itself.
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Michael Kahn
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 1 hour, 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
- John Glass . Drama Urge
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- Don . WeLoveDC
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