Monday, December 21, 2015

Old Times: Acting Exercise

Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best in Old Times at the Roundabout Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Though I’m not really a Pinter guy, I can admire the craftsmanship of plays like The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and Betrayal. And some actors respond to the challenges of his language in exciting, even startling ways, as Ben Kingsley did in the 1983 movie version of Betrayal and Kristin Scott Thomas did in the West End revival of the same work in 2011. But though they’re often compared, his other three-hander Old Times has remained, through the years, stubbornly opaque for me – and I don’t mean ambiguous or mysterious. In it, a couple, Deeley and Kate, play host to Anna, who was Kate’s roommate years earlier, and in the course of their post-dinner conversation we not only hear about a side of Kate that Deeley has never encountered but we also learn that Deeley and Anna may have met each other in a pub around the same time. In both cases Anna’s version is so odd as to seem manufactured. The received wisdom about the play is that it’s about the nature of memory, but Anna’s memories aren’t convincing and the suggested transformations of the characters in the course of the evening aren’t suggestive, the way they are in Strindberg’s dream plays (which may be one of Pinter’s influences). It feels academic to me – an acting exercise – and it seems to end before Pinter has worked out where he wants to take the audience.

The recently closed production by Douglas Hodge at the Roundabout Theatre is the third professional one I’ve seen. When I was a senior in college I saw the original Broadway cast – Robert Shaw, Mary Ure and Rosemary Harris, in the parts created in the Royal Shakespeare Company premiere by Colin Blakely, Dorothy Tutin and Vivien Merchant (Pinter’s wife at the time) – and though it was thrilling to see English actors who were already legendary, the play left me both baffled and unmoved. John Malkovich, Kate Nelligan and Miranda Richardson essayed the roles in a TV version twenty years later without much success; you certainly can’t say that these characters, underwritten as they are, don’t attract talented actors. In the Roundabout’s Old Times Deeley is played by Clive Owen, and he has such a compelling presence and his line readings have such energy and such an acerbic bite that he holds your attention. (He doesn’t have to hold it for long; Hodge has directed the actors to maintain a breakneck pace, so the play comes in at seventy minutes without intermission.) As Kate, swan-necked Kelly Reilly conveys a sexy languor and not much else. The third member of the cast, Eve Best (she was Wallis Simpson in The King’s Speech and played Josie Hogan in the last Broadway go-round of A Moon for the Misbegotten, opposite Kevin Spacey), is all affectation. But all three of the actors come across as terribly actorish; the fact that Owen is more skillful than the two women amounts in this case to his knowing better tricks.

The set design by Christine Jones places the furniture in Deeley and Kate’s living room against a cyclorama with an abstract spiral projected on it; upstage center is what looks like a huge block of ice. It’s a kind of surrealistic canvas, beautiful to behold, and though I couldn’t make much sense of it, it provides a center of focus when you get tired of all the strenuous “theatrical” acting that transpires in front of it.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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