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Clive Owen makes a riveting Broadway debut in Harold Pinter‘s Old Times, playing a man whose cocky suavity slowly unravels as he negotiates his hold on two elusive women, who may be different sides of the same person. That’s just one possible interpretation of this famously slippery 1971 three-hander about the mutable recesses of memory and the evanescent nature of erotic possession. But director Douglas Hodge doesn’t make the mistake of imposing explanations where none were intended as he charts a transfixing course from gamesmanship to the consuming loss of a fantasy that was perhaps never attainable to begin with.
Audience response will depend largely on the appetite for Pinter at his most opaque — or some might even say attenuated. This is not a play with the biting menace of earlier landmark works like The Birthday Party, The Caretaker or The Homecoming. Its fascination is quieter and more cryptic, to the point where some will find it bloodless.
Hodge, a seasoned Pinter interpreter as both actor and director, signals from the outset that the drama is unfolding in a disorienting void adjacent to reality. Strobes blast out from a howling vortex while the three figures shift into various allegiances and divisions; Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke‘s ambient music further emphasizes the unsettling atmosphere, liquefying into a soundscape of waves and seagulls.
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The play unfolds in the converted farmhouse where film director Deeley (Owen) lives with his gorgeous wife Kate (Kelly Reilly) near the English coast. Designer Christine Jones strips it down to a slow-moving turntable with sectional sofas and a window of translucent ice, embedded in hardened black lava against an infinity of radiating circles. That setting quite literally represents both the lady of the house, with her chilly silences and dreamy distances, and the unpredictable interloper from her youth, Anna (Eve Best), who has since decamped to volcanic Sicily.
Kate responds with evasive ambivalence to Deeley’s interrogation about the visitor whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years and he supposedly has never met. But she appears to soften as Anna — who is present throughout the married couple’s initial exchange though may or may not actually be there — sweeps them up in her gushing reminiscences of the days when she and Kate were flatmates. “I mean the sheer expectation of it all, the looking-forwardness of it all,” she coos. “To be poor and young, and a girl, in London then…” That evocation of a time that predates Deeley’s claim on Kate both intrigues and rankles him.
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As Anna congratulates them on the sensible choice of living in a place of such enveloping silence, a hint of antagonism creeps into her voice, and she and Deeley begin squaring off over Kate’s affections. From his arrogant manspreading to the sardonic glint in his flirtation, Owen’s Deeley projects confidence in his power over the situation. But power in any Pinter play is transitory. The title of the movie Deeley recalls seeing years before when he first met Kate, Odd Man Out, suggests his increasingly uncertain place in a triangle of which sphinx-like Kate emerges as the strongest point.
The playwright provides an uncharacteristically explicit key in Anna’s line: “There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.” That haze of memories lived and imagined makes the play a riddle for the audience: Were Kate and Anna lovers? Or Deeley and Anna? Is Anna dead? Or Kate? Is Anna the wild, molten part of Kate that she extinguished after marrying? And does the husband Anna supposedly left back in Italy — about whom Deeley seems inordinately concerned — really exist, or is he the Mediterranean playboy Deeley wishes he could be?
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Elucidation is not the point. Much of the pleasure (or frustration) of mulling those questions lies in Pinter’s exacting use of language, parsing words and phrases for hidden meaning, and in the freighted pauses that Hodge and his actors explore with corresponding precision. The simple delivery of a cup of coffee or a cigarette can be as hostile as it is seductive. This sexy production coaxes out both the sensuousness and the sorrow in the text, as well as the needling humor. However, the underlying anguish that inexorably tightens its stranglehold on Deeley lacks weight, which probably has as much to do with Pinter’s withholding approach as with the production.
Best and Reilly look sensational, with costumer Constance Hoffman and hair designer Amanda Miller outfitting them like ravishing visions out of the pages of ’60s Vogue. But even though Reilly keeps Kate composed and secretive while Best makes Anna more teasing and provocative, both women adopt an almost declamatory tone that veers toward portentous melodrama, dulling the play’s haunting intensity.
“Oh how the ghost of you clings,” says Deeley, quoting “These Foolish Things” at the end of a back-and-forth of song lyrics exchanged with Anna. He might be referring to his wife as an out-of-reach shadow of the woman he married, or to their intrusive visitor who appears intimate with a version of Kate unknown to him. Either way, Owen’s performance is mesmerizing, revealing the tattered edges beneath the smooth exterior of a man surrendering to the knowledge that he never has had and never will have the woman he desires.
Cast: Clive Owen, Eve Best, Kelly Reilly
Director: Douglas Hodge
Playwright: Harold Pinter
Set designer: Christine Jones
Costume designer: Constance Hoffman
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Clive Goodwin
Music: Thom Yorke
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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