Memory, like truth, can be elusive. And as everyone knows, it can play tricks. But rarely is it as perplexing as in Pinter's Old Times, which opened last night in a haunting revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company with a sterling cast led by Clive Owen in his Broadway debut.
To kick off its 50th anniversary season the Roundabout recruited Douglas Hodge to stage Pinter's tense and disconcerting reunion of two old friends for his own first Broadway directorial outing. Hodge, the talented and versatile British actor who is no stranger to playing Pinter, enlisted Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly, also in her first Broadway appearance.
The result is an electrifying hour of theater that crackles like lightning as Owen, Best, and Reilly ruminate and reminisce on what may or may not be old times together when they were all young and carefree in London 20 years earlier.
The setting for this ostensible stroll down memory lane is the English seaside home of Deeley and Kate. They are awaiting the arrival of Anna, Kate's long-ago friend and roommate, who has traveled to see Kate from her home in Sicily, just outside Taormina in the shadow of Mt. Etna.
As the lights come up all three characters are on stage, though the opening dialogue is only between Deeley and Kate as they discuss Kate's onetime friend, whom Deeley seems to have never met. Deeley asks his wife what Anna is like. "I hardly remember her," Kate replies. "She used to steal things ... underwear."
At a certain point in this husband-wife cross-examination, Anna steps into the scene with a rambling monologue on the rushed life she and Kate led as impoverished young girls, working as secretaries in London: evenings at the Albert Hall or Covent Garden, theaters and ballets, riding the tops of the buses on Kensington High Street, days at the Tate, out every night, lunches in Green Park, never cooking at the flat, then off to work the next morning.
The evening progresses from polite, rather mundane "remember the time" dinner-party conversation, punctuated by those ominous Pinteresque silences, to more unsettling recollections. Deeley recounts how he met Kate: he happened into a cinema to see "Odd Man Out" starring Robert Newton, a British matinee idol of the 1940's and 50's, saw Kate there and began to chat her up.
"So you might say it was Robert Newton who brought us together," he quips. Anna recalls a night when she came home to find a strange man in their room, sobbing and lying across Kate's lap.
Deeley and Anna indulge in singing snatches of lines from old hit show tunes ("The way you wear your hair ...") and begin discussing Kate between themselves as though she weren't present. "You talk about me as if I were dead," Kate fumes. "You talk about me as if I am dead." And she goes to take a bath.
In her absence Deeley tells Anna that he knew her back then as well and recounts once seeing her in a pub on the Brompton Road. She was dressed all in black and afterward they went to a party and he sat on the floor and looked up her dress and saw her panties - Kate's panties, in fact, that Anna happened to be wearing.
As always with Pinter there is an element of menace and mystery that creeps into the most banal banter, and Hodge's brilliant cast delivers both, especially as the conversation gradually turns more morbid leading to Kate's disquieting recollections at the end. Owen can make something as simple as offering a glass of brandy seem threatening and both Best and Reilly maintain an aura of inscrutability throughout that is unsettling.
Also with Pinter there is always the question of whether any of these recollections are true. Anthony Hopkins, who played Deeley in an earlier Roundabout production of Old Times, once told how he asked Pinter during a rehearsal whether any of what his character was saying actually happened or was it all just his fantasy. The playwright thought for a moment and replied, "I'm not really sure, Tony. Just say the line."
Old Times begs the question of whether anything we think we remember ever actually occurred. It's a conundrum Pinter himself addresses in the play. At one point, Anna observes: "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened, but as I recall them so they take place."