Fort Worth — Two women. One man. Never bodes well.
But exactly what it bodes is up for grabs in DragStrip Courage’s respectably smoldering production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, a 1971 classic from modern theater’s master of menace and mind games. And though the show’s steady heat doesn’t quite add up to a sizzle, the Nobel Prize-winning Pinter is a fairly rare bird in these parts (Undermain’s The Birthday Party in 2012 a notable exception)—and it’s worth a look-in at Arts Fifth Avenue to remember—or discover—what this much-loved, much-hated playwright can get up to.
It’s an interesting choice as a chaser to DragStrip’s Waiting for Godot last summer, as Pinter—who began writing plays in the 1950s and kept working nearly until his death in 2008—acknowledged a debt to Godot author Samuel Beckett and other early writers of what came to be called the “absurdist” style.
What can make Pinter an exciting, mind-racing night of theater is his utter refusal to give either audience or actors the information they need to navigate his onstage worlds. No sitting back in a Pinter play: from the word go (or in this case, the word “dark”) we’re in the thick of it, trying to answer that eternal question: WTF? And though too much philosophizing would have made Pinter snort and offer to stand us a pint if we’d only stop yammering (he and Beckett tended to let Eugene Ionesco—the third “church father” of absurdism—do more of the talking), he was, when Old Times was written, a member of that postwar generation—after the War, after the Holocaust—who believed in their bones that the world was broken, violent and possibly insane, its “old verities” a fraud…and that we wander in that world, map-less and clueless, struggling to snatch a bit of clarity from the chaos.
More questions than answers. That’s Pinter all over—and, as Pinter might say: that’s life.
Deeley (Seth Johnston, who also directs) and his wife Kate (Laura Lutz Jones), living in an isolated seaside home, await the arrival of Anna (Mary Jane Greer), a college friend Kate hasn’t seen in 20 years. (In PinterWorld, the introduction of a new human “element” frequently sparks the chain reaction to follow.) Deeley is more than normally curious about his wife’s long-absent “best and only” friend. He seems especially surprised, even disturbed, to find that Kate actually lived with Anna during their student days.
Kate quietly begins to add details: Anna, she tells him, had many friends. She borrowed Kate’s underwear. When Anna arrives, she perches—back arched, legs crossed—on a settee, airily describing the go-go London life she once shared with Kate: theaters and parties, flirtations with artists and writers. More questions erupt from Deeley, who tops up his glass of whiskey as Kate sits or lounges on the sofa, enigmatic and smiling, now and then interrupting the charged give-and-take between Deeley and Anna with a protest that “you talk of me as if I were dead.”
And suddenly, as Deeley and Anna circle and hover above her, we know—and it may be the only certainty of the play: Kate is their shared object of desire, and this is a battlefield.
But after that, it’s all questions, as we try to take in the action onstage and figure out what it means. Is there any truth, any memory here we can trust? Did Deeley meet Anna—wearing Kate’s borrowed undies—in the old days, or is he making it up out of jealousy? Are Kate and Anna two people, or aspects of one? Does Deeley feel threatened that Anna will draw his wife’s attention and love—or that she “got there” before him in the old times they shared? Is he an aging Dirty Young Man, a looking-up-her-skirt type who’s turned on by Anna’s open sexuality, so different from Kate’s catlike self-containment? Is the play about male power—the luxury and torment of choosing between two women—or about its absence, with “the women” considering a sexuality that has nothing to do with him? Are all three of these people even alive, for Pete’s sake?
The conclusions you come to may very well depend on the life you’ve led, the experiences you’ve had—and won’t leave you at all sure you’ve found “the” answer to this play. There isn’t one. And pity the poor actors: they’re as much in the dark as the audience, and you have to wonder what backstories they’ve created for themselves.
As Deeley, DragStrip founder Johnston is a heavy-lidded and looming presence; we feel the slow build of his anger and suspicion, along with a deep need to remind these ladies what a stud he was back in the day. Jones’ Kate is, as the character should be, maddeningly hard to read as she swings between impassivity and banal chit-chat. But this Kate is more a domestic cat than a lounging lioness: she doesn’t quite convey the feline magnetism that pulls the others toward her. Greer is effective and sensual as Anna, her verbal jousts with Deeley growing darker, her movements smooth and calculated for the best display of breasts, hips, and long, elegant neck. Yet for all three performers, there’s a sense they might have been able to take things to a more explosive level, by opting for some of the higher-risk choices always available to actors in a Pinter script. This Old Times keeps us intrigued—but it ought to leave us in a sweat (hot or cold, your choice).
One quibble, and it’s with the playwright, not the production. Pinter wrote Old Times as a two-act play, but these days it might be smarter to play it straight through—it would run little more than an hour—without an intermission to break the tension. But this is a decent production of a challenging piece, clearly done on a shoestring budget and entirely out of love for the playwright. If you need a reference point, Old Times is a sort of No Exit for the married set: hell is, indeed, other people—and never being sure who they really are, even when you love them.