Old Times: Theater review by David Cote
The first word spoken in Harold Pinter’s gripping 1971 drama about a man, his wife and the wife’s visiting friend is “dark.” Deeley (Clive Owen) was presumably curious about the hair of soon-to-arrive Anna (Eve Best). But Kate (Kelly Reilly) might as well as be summing up the huge, glowering space that surrounds them at the American Airlines Theatre. Christine Jones’s set is undeniably forceful—a back wall covered with a vertiginous vortex that lights up, the “converted farmhouse” specified in Pinter’s stage directions rendered as an island of high-gloss black surfaces upon which chic modern furniture floats (close observers will note a turntable moving very slowly). Combined with incidental music by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (industrial and menacing, as you’d expect), the mood is abstract, ghostly, interior. Problem is, the play already does all that: The designers are overdoing it.
We know the British director, Douglas Hodge, more as an actor (he was last seen here in the Roundabout’s 2012 Cyrano de Bergerac), so you would expect him to be stronger on acting. And indeed, Owen and Reilly are quite good: He’s coiled, boastful and sexy, with an edge of sleaze; she languorously transfers herself from divan to chair as if wafted by a draft, her sloe-eyed, sleepwalker presence belying a savage final attack. As the third wheel, Best, normally a steely presence, seems stranded between her costars’ choices: too bland and self-contained when she should be spiky and aggressive. Possibly overcompensating, Owen relishes the seedy and vicious side of Deeley, alternately loathing and lusting after Anna, boiling with anger against the lukewarm Best. If the central conflict of Old Times is a man trying to protect his wife from a predatory stranger (or maybe he’s the stranger), it has been diluted by uncertain acting choices.
I say “if”: The beauty and power of the 70-minute piece lies in how the idea of recalling one’s past is a sort of betrayal, an act of violence against another. The weapons in this battle are memories—overlapping, contradicting, insinuating themselves into the present. Despite overdetermined design and asymmetrical performances, Pinter’s precise, lyrical language comes through with crystalized, cutting force. Nothing here feels old; the blood flows freshly from new wounds.
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Harold Pinter. Directed by Douglas Hodge. With Clive Owen, Eve Best, Kelly Reilly. Running time:1hr 10mins. No intermission.
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