In the lobby of the theater where Clive Owen is making his Broadway debut in a revival of Harold Pinter’s 1971 Old Times, a t-shirt on sale is printed with the single word “pause.” That’s an inside joke for Pinter fans – which is also a good description for the play itself, although an inside joke that confounds rather than delights.
Douglas Hodge, who made his name as an actor in pause-filled Pinter plays in England, is directing the Roundabout production of Old Times that has opened at American Airlines Theater. Hodge has acted on Broadway to acclaim (in Cyrano de Bergerac and in the Tony-winning role of Albin in La Cage Aux Folles), but the Pinter play is his first job as a director on the Great White Way. Given both his acting talent and his love of Pinter, he surely deserves some credit for the sophisticated and seductive performances by the three members of the cast: Owen is smooth and amused as Deeley; Kelly Reilly (also making her Broadway debut) is earthy and opaque as his wife Kate; Eve Best (best-known in the U.S. for her role as the British doctor and best friend in Nurse Jackie) is sexy and energetic as Anna, Kate’s long-ago friend. They have mastered Pinter’s tricky rhythms.
But there’s no getting around Pinter’s deliberately cryptic text, and several of Hodge’s choices, rather than working to ground the goings-on in some recognizable reality and thus orient the audience, instead seem to revel in the play’s weirdness.
The script begins straightforwardly enough. Deeley and Kate, a married couple who live in the English countryside, are awaiting the arrival of Anna, a friend of Kate’s who now lives in Italy, and whom Kate has not seen for 20 years. In the first scene, Kate is describing Anna for her husband; the only thing odd is that, Kate says Anna used to steal her underwear.
Anna (who has been on stage the whole time, her back to us) then “arrives” and does most of the talking, reminiscing about what it was like to be young and poor in London. Kate offers her coffee; Deeley offers her brandy.
Then Deeley and Anna begin to talk about Kate, almost as if Kate is not there.
The turning point comes when Deeley and Anna start singing snippets of old songs (Deeley: “When a lovely flame dies…” Anna: “…Smoke gets in your eyes.”)
Are they deliberately excluding Kate? Are they trying to one-up each other with the songs? Is Pinter giving the romantic lyrics the ironic taint of menace?
Things never get back to normal after that, with the unreliable reminiscences clashing and turning surreal. Deeley says it was at a showing of the movie Odd Man Out, when Deeley first met Kate, who was the only other person in the movie. But later Anna says that she and Kate saw Odd Man Out together. Deeley claims to have known Anna years ago – and that they had a sexual encounter….
”There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened,” Anna says at one point.
“A joyous wonderful play that people will talk about as long as we have a theater,” Clive Barnes wrote in his 1971 review of the original Broadway production of Old Times.
More than 40 years later, does anybody still feel this way ?
Certainly we are still seeing productions of plays by Harold Pinter, who died in 2008, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most recently on Broadway, Mike Nichols directed Betrayal (Nichols’ last Broadway play) with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz; and Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen performed in No Man’s Land.
Pinter changed critic John Lahr’s life, as he tells us in a chapter of his newly published collection, specifically Pinter’s The Homecoming. “Before the play, I thought words were just vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defense. Before, I thought theater was about the spoken; after, I understand the eloquence of the unspoken. The position of a chair, the length of a pause, the choice of a gesture, I realized, could convey volumes. In 1967, I didn’t know quite what I’d seen; I knew only that the play’s spectacular combination of mystery and rigor had taught me something new about life, about language, about the nature of dramatic storytelling. Pinter had taken the narration out of theater…”
Old Times, while certainly mysterious in its action and rigorous in its language, feels slighter than Pinter’s more familiar work – not just because it’s little more than an hour long, but because it is not as ominous nor charged, a puzzle not as worth the time to contemplate.
Pinter resisted explaining his work, but he did give us a clue: “If you press me for a definition, I’d say that what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism.”
Yet, in all but the acting, the Roundabout production works at feeling unrealistic. Christine Jones (Tony-winning set designer for American Idiot and artistic director of the cutting edge Theater for One) has designed a set for Old Times that places us somewhere in Outer Space (or perhaps an old TV show) — – a backdrop of a swirling design that looks like something out of a 1960’s sci fi film or a low-budget hippie flick, a slab center stage that looks like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey except made out of a block of ice.
Lighting designer Japhy Weideman (who set the mood so effectively in The Visit) has set up two banks of blindingly bright lights and flashes them four times in our eyes before the action of the play begins. (Ironically, the first word in the play is “Dark” – uttered by Kate to describe what Anna looks like.) Thom Yorke, singer/songwriter for Radiohead, provides loud, atonal music before the play and in-between the scenes that sounds like feedback.
It doesn’t much matter that these choices can undoubtedly be justified in the text (almost anything can.) For example, the swirling backdrop may be a reference to a riff by Anna on ripples:
“Some people throw a stone into a river to see if the water’s too cold for jumping, others, a few others, will always wait for the ripples before they will jump…And I knew that Katey would always wait not just for the first emergence of ripple but for the ripples to pervade and pervade the surface, for of course as you know ripples on the surface indicating a shimmering in depth down through every particle of water down to the river bed…”
Actually, I didn’t know that.
Old Times is on stage at the American Airlines Theater (227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, 10036) through November 29, 2015. Tickets and details