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Shakespeare Theatre's "Old Times": Not Quite How We Remember Them


May 26, 2011

Steven Culp as Deeley and Tracy Lynn Middendorf as Kate with Holly Twyford as Anna (background) in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of '"Old Times"' by Harold Pinter, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.
By Ian Buckwalter

Watching the Shakepeare Theatre's new production of Harold Pinter's "Old Times" is a little like watching a life-size shoebox diorama. Designer Walt Spangler's set, lit with a cinematic eye by Scott Zielinski, turns the stage of the Lansburgh Theatre into a rigidly-defined rectangle, with white walls, ceiling and floor, white modernist furnishings and a long row of rectangular windows at the back meant to look at the sea beyond the walls of this remote English country house. It's cold, sterile and more enclosed than one is used to seeing at the theater, and heightens the voyeuristic sense of peering in on a carefully constructed moment in the lives of its characters.

Deeley (Steven Culp) and Kate (Tracy Lynn Middendorf) are the middle-aged, long-married couple who live in this aesthetically harsh environment, and whether they've decorated to reflect the colorless routine of their partnership, or it's the blank surroundings that have dulled their senses to the point of apathy, this couple reflects their house and vice-versa. Director Michael Kahn places the pair on opposite sides of the stage, and the low, wide dimensions underline a physical distance that is clearly emotional, too. Everything they do seems colored by a vague disinterest, from the way they smoke their cigarettes to their discussion of the impending visit of Kate's old friend and former roommate Anna (Holly Twyford).

When Anna does arrive, Deeley finally seems motivated to abandon his blasé sheen. As she relates old stories of her and a young Kate palling around in London -- for the stiff and formal Anna, a crazy night involved "guzzling" stew and reading Yeats -- Deeley senses the familiarity between this woman and his wife. There's the hint of an underlying sexual electricity in these stories, and while Deeley may be beyond the point of caring about much, jealousy is a strong enough motivator to motivate him. His and Anna's remembrances of things past become a heated game of one-upsmanship, each trying to out-do the other with the intimacy of their knowledge of Kate, or trying to impress her with traded serenades of old songs. By the time Deeley awkwardly describes his first sexual encounter with Kate, it's clear that things have rather gotten out of hand.

Tracy Lynn Middendorf as Kate, Steven Culp as Deeley and Holly Twyford as Anna in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of '"Old Times"' by Harold Pinter, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.
As the play moves swiftly into its second act (the whole thing runs a pithy 90 minutes, including the 15 minute intermission), the awkward reality of the situation begins to break down. Deeley and Anna talk more and more as if Kate isn't even there. When Anna does speak to Kate, she speaks as if it's 20 years before and they're still back in their old flat, trying to figure out which friends to invite over. Meanwhile, Deeley suddenly remembers running into Anna at a party all those years ago, and tells a lascivious story of the incident that meshes with a newly remembered, or formerly hidden, story that Anna soon tells.

It's pointed out in passing how interesting it is that we sometimes remember things that never happened. Impermanent and untrustworthy memories become central to "Old Times", which presents a series of surprising and befuddling revelations as it nears the end. Delivered in a monologue from Kate, they call into question what we've really been seeing this entire time.

Middendorf's performance, largely silent up to this point, becomes central to making this work. Her quiet disinterest and childlike naïveté could indicate any number of explanations for both her character and the riddle that the play becomes -- and Middendorf hits the sweet spot of blank dreaminess necessary to give the audience room to cast their own interpretations onto her.

Long, contemplative silences punctuate the final scene, allowing time for consideration of pieces of confounding, incongruous information. Even with extra time to process, they're not necessarily any easier to understand. You may well leave the theater asking whomever you came with if they know what just happened. The clues to unlocking this puzzle box lie buried in stories Pinter cleverly fools us into believing are true, ensuring that we'll be pondering the accuracy of our own memories of what has just transpired long after the lights come up.

"Old Times" runs through July 3 at the Shakespeare Theatre's Lansburgh Theatre. Tickets are available online.

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