he brings many smiles. We always remember that Pinter learned a great
deal from Samuel Beckett and indeed sent the older master the script of
Old Times for approval, which he gave. We tend to forget that
Pinter also derives nearly as much from the sharp dialogue of Noel
Coward, who was also a fan.
The stylish, beautifully staged production of Old Times
at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company feels like a drawing-room comedy
with most of the exposition removed, or contradictory if it is there.
The laughter, often anxious or intimidating, is delivered in abundance.
Triple play: Camilla Schade, Leigh Keeley and Greg Bostwick in Kitchen Theatre’s Old Times.
The plot is disarmingly simple. A
prosperous middle-aged couple, Deeley (Greg Bostwick) and Kate (Camilla
Schade), live quietly somewhere on the British coast. (Sound designer
Don Tindall supplies periodic crashing of waves upon the shore, heard
at a distance.) Deeley has written and directed films at distant
locations, but Kate has stayed at home. They are awaiting a dinner
guest, Anna (Leigh Keeley), who may or may not be bringing a husband.
In conversation Deeley tells us he is
learning for the first time that Kate and Anna were roommates 20 years
earlier, and that Kate tolerated Anna’s stealing her underwear. “Was
she your best friend?” Deeley asks. Kate responds, “If you have only
one thing of something you can’t say it’s the best of anything.” No
Pinter character ever gives a straight answer.
More than a generation after he hit the
big time, many of Pinter’s secrets are now open to us. Take for
example, the famous pauses, which the playwright loathes to hear
described as “Pinteresque.” The silences that speak, they seemed
jaggedly innovative when Pinter introduced them. But now that they’ve
been around for so long on stage, we are more aware that we often hear
them in life, as if no one ever noticed before. Thus, no one is now
puzzled by them. Good actors, as we have in this production, signal to
us what is in the characters’ minds and we easily extrapolate into the
empty space knowing what they would say if words came to them.
The larger issues are also more
accessible to us as they often line up with what has come to be known
as post-modernism: Is what we are being told reliable? Did it ever happen? Are speakers telling us one thing to shield what they do not wish to say but we can figure out in other ways?
At one level Old Times is just a step beyond Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese film classic Rashomon (1950),
again with three characters, each speaking lines to aggrandize
themselves and mislead us. Pinter takes this much farther by reminding
that our own memories can trick us. Anna says, “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.”
Director Margarett Perry has staged the
action so that the supposedly absent Anna is present from the first
spoken words, a few steps away from the action. In contrast to the
lithe, somewhat kittenish Kate, she’s more formal and domineering, all
dressed in black. What has been said about her (surprise!) turns out to
be false. Neither she nor her husband is a vegetarian. Instead, she
speaks of her residence in Sicily, where she speaks Italian, but she
remembers the years in London very well. In a startling Freudian (also
Pinteresque) slip she tells Deeley, “You have a wonderful casserole . .
. I mean, wife.”
In short order we learn that Kate and
Anna may have been very good friends indeed, and also that Deeley had
known Anna and may have taken the liberty of looking up her skirt on
one occasion. Deeley remembers finding Kate sitting alone in a fleapit
cinema screening Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), where their
relationship began, or so he says. Anna recalls a contrasting episode
where she was with Kate at the film. The title is highly relevant;
Pinter has the characters say much more about the movie, but he also
expects that audiences remember that Odd Man Out is a child’s game in
which two players bond to exclude a third. Deeley is married to Kate,
but he may have had an affair with Anna. And Anna could still well be
jonesing for Kate, a possible reason for her visit.
Some audiences are infuriated by this
ambiguity, just as some theatergoers still argue fruitlessly whether
the priest was guilty in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Many
years ago British critic Alan Brien commented that a Pinter play is
like a Hitchcock film with the last reel removed. In other words, the
true nature of the real relationship between the three characters is a
teasing McGuffin, a focus of the narrative quest far less interesting
than what we learn along the way. The most important thing Pinter shows
us is what lies beneath the genteel, articulate conversation of
well-mannered artistic people: aggression, vanity, envy, avarice and
Two bravura passages could stand by
themselves as Pinter at his most brilliant. One is a subdued duel
between Deeley and Anna as they remember lines and melodies from
Gershwin, Berlin and Porter (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Blue
Moon,” and Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s “Lovely to Look At” and
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” are also mentioned), in which the two singers
each stake a claim on Kate’s affection. Deeley gets the last line with
Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” but does not
necessarily win. He can’t; the play isn’t over yet.
More obvious and even funnier is
Deeley’s exchange with Anna over how they would pamper absent Kate,
offstage in the bathtub, and presumably nude. On the surface, the
language is G-rated, mostly about towels and dampness, as well as those
inaccessible places that need more patting down. No one misses what
this is about. To think otherwise would be like assuming “The Little
Engine That Could” is about Amtrak.
The choice of Pinter’s much-celebrated but little-seen Old Times is reputedly a wish of Perry’s, best known at Kitchen Theatre for guiding original works by her husband Brian Dykstra, like Strangerhorse. A hundred subtle touches imply she’s been thinking about this show for a long time.
In a three-character play, like a
three-legged stool, all players hold up the center. In some ways our
eyes go first to the least-known player, Camilla Schade, as the
gray-haired but unmistakably sensual Kate. With the long thin legs of a
dancer, she is also the most physical of the three. Usually seen as a
comic, Leigh Keeley is more centered here as Anna, whose wit rests on
being a power not to be trifled with. Company regular Greg Bostwick
grows in depth in every role. As Deeley he is unsurpassed in filling
every Pinter pause with meaning.
“Fun” is not a word one associated with Harold Pinter. You have to see Kitchen’s Old Times to believe it.
This production runs through April 13. See Times Table for information.
Click here for information on the
Syracuse New Times SALT Awards (Syracuse Area Live Theatre).