New York’s ongoing immersion in Pinter following on from the concurrent appearance of Betrayal (awful) and No Man's Land (very good) two seasons ago continues with a rare local revival courtesy the Roundabout Theatre Company of Old Times – if “local” is the right adjective for a staging whose director (the Tony-winning actor Douglas Hodge) and cast all hail from the other side of the pond. In London, the Nobel laureate’s 1971 play gets done pretty regularly. Indeed, the last West End version alternated its two splendid actresses, Lia Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas, between the roles of Kate and Anna, the wife and best friend/visitor/mistress who swirl around filmmaker Deeley, who is in turn the “odd man out” in ways that go beyond Pinter’s deliberate reference to the 1947 Carol Reed film of that title.
Its themes of control and conquest Pinter constants, Old Times is also about the fragility of memory – a play in which the present comes saturated in the past amid a landscape where (to paraphrase the language of the play) things didn’t necessarily happen, or not happen, just because we say or think that they did. As shimmering as it is sad and often unexpectedly funny as well, Old Times might seem too elusive for today’s Broadway – a thoroughfare that, for good or ill, tends to thrive on the literal. So you can understand Hodge for wanting to ramp up the piece via strobe lights, a rather aggressive soundscape (Thom Yorke from Radiohead supplied the original music) and an in-your-face design from the redoubtable Christine Jones that sets a defining rectangular block of ice against a backdrop that put me in mind of English op-art sensation Bridget Riley – fine in a gallery perhaps but arguably requiring too much additional decoding for a play that already occupies its own ineffably mysterious realm.
Amid all these distractions, it’s actually a credit to the cast that they make the vivid impression they do. If Kelly Reilly as the sphinxlike Kate seems opaque in ways that extend beyond the text, Clive Owen in his Broadway debut neatly hints at the thug that lies dormant beneath even Pinterland’s nattiest male façade. Then there’s the magnificent Eve Best, a proven Pinter hand (she was Tony-nominated for her sophomore Broadway appearance a few years ago in The Homecoming), whose Anna is a diaphanous figure, at once alluring and fretful, a fantasia in white who hovers around the action only to end up usurping it. And when she starts in on snatches of popular songs from the repertoire in an effort to gain the upper hand, audiences are treated to a sterling singing voice that makes one wonder when the protean Best will make her musical theatre debut. Let’s hope someone out there is listening.