Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 6, 2015
Old Times by Harold Pinter. Directed by Douglas Hodge. Set design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Constance Hoffman. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Clive Goodwin. Music by Thom Yorke. Hair design by Amanda Miller. Cast: Clive Owen, Eve Best, Kelly Reilly.
This jolting metaphor occupies only the first several seconds of the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Harold Pinter's Old Times, which just opened at the American Airlines. But through its exquisite execution director Douglas Hodge, set designer Christine Jones, lighting designer Japhy Weideman, composer Thom Yorke, and sound designer Clive Goodwin have ensured its effects ripple endlessly throughout the alternately thrilling and chilly evening.
Just like the view on Jones's dirty-violet backdropa dark nugget of energy in the far distance spreading new circles throughout eternity as if a stone dropped into a poolyou're constantly reminded that you can never trust that there's been no impact merely because you didn't see it. Everything, whether physical reaction or emotional destitution, stems from somewhere. Searching for that, against the odds and frequently hope itself, is the most vivid and concrete of Pinter's ideas here, and the one Hodge appears most interested in (and capable of) delivering.
Lest you have any doubt about the stagnating nature of the marriage of Deeley (Clive Owen) and Kate (Kelly Reilly), a towering block of ice upstage (serving as the closest thing to an actual door on Jones's intentionally disjointed mindscape living-room set) stands as a permanent reminder of what it's like to be fixed in place. These two are trapped by both their present and past, but can't (or won't) face it yet. They can no longer see the source of the problems they choose not to acknowledge.
Their perspective becomes rather clearer, however, upon the arrival of Anna (Eve Best). She's a long-ago friend whom Kate has not seen in 20 years, but who possesses the keen memory and ties to what was that neither Kate nor Deeley still does. Does that vantage point, perhaps, make her vision too clear? "How wise you were to choose this part of the world," she tells them, "and how sensible and courageous of you both to stay permanently in such silence." Though ostensibly referring to their living conditions well outside of London proper, it's difficult not to believe she's referring to something much deeper.
This impression is only accentuated as the play continues and it becomes increasingly obvious that the cherished years behind Deeley and Kate aren't quite what they remember. In fact, Anna, may have been considerably less of a bystander and more of an active participant than any of them is willing to admit; in any event, her presence at the crucial early junctures in the pair's relationship subtly altered their course in ways that still matter to them.
For the most part, the actors are up to the challenge of unraveling much of this. Most engrossing is Best, whose Anna is a statuesque embodiment of the unerring perfection of the past: a woman women envy and men desire, with approximately equivalent slaver. She chews and savors her every word, as though each syllable presses an unmissable point, but also projects a certain mystery that injects at least a drop of doubt into everything she says. It's a canny, mature portrayal that reveals Anna as both resolutely real and shimmering fantasy, as though representative what isn't (and perhaps never was) and yet must be.
Reilly, for her part, cuts a stark but effective contrast as a modern woman adrift in exactly the life she once so passionately coveted. If the prevailing question at work is seen as, "Why don't we know for sure who she is?" (and that's definitely valid), Reilly makes it clear that Kate doesn't know either, and is trapped within just that knowledge. The spiritual tug-of-war between her and Best, and their characters, is equally gripping and haunting, but not something Owen easily insinuates himself into. His Deeley displays palpable concern, yes, but doesn't have the immutable tie to either woman that might raise the stakes up as high as Pinter dared let them go.
There is a tangible restraint throughout, however, that can be attributable directly to Hodge. He's best known on these shores as a performer (La Cage aux Folles, Cyrano de Bergerac), so it's perhaps not surprising that he's elicited great depths from the actors' approaches. But at the technical concerns, his achievements impress rather less. Staging-wise, he seemingly takes many cues from the visually bracing but scattered opening, and views Deeley, Kate, and Anna as shrapnel (or perhaps refuse) to be kicked around than chess pieces that need to be precisely positioned. Though Hodge is ostensibly nudging us further into the trio's joint subconscious, the blocking often comes across as unexceptional or indifferent at best and random at worst.
More damaging, however, is that many of those famous pauses that define Pinter's works have either been sped up or stripped out altogether. It's a bold choice, to be sure, but the extra temporal space those pauses provide for luxuriating (wallowing?) in the lines and feelings between them is a key element in keeping the tension thick, the tragedy (if, in actuality, there is any) teeming, and the stakes meaningful. (It also drastically cuts down on the running time; this Old Times runs barely more than an hour, but many productions naturally run 15 minutes longer, not counting an intermissionwhich this one does not include.) Leaner does not necessarily mean higher energy or greater urgency; too often, just the opposite is the case this time around.
Old Times is not an easy play to absorb in the best of situationshow much, if any, of what we witness can we take at face value?so missteps on these essential basic elements don't help. But when the text and the actors are in perfect coordination, you're able to forgive Hodge somewhat. There's an observable seed of brilliance here that Best and Reilly insist should not be discounted or ignored, and their arguments are magnetic. If the action never comes as close to shocking and electrifying as the initial stage picture promises, it scores one accomplishment by nonetheless being at least as irresistible as it is off-putting.