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"Old Times" Looking Back Through Smoke

(c) Culpeper Star Exponent

June 23, 2011

By Maggie Lawrence

Compare Harold Pinter's spare dialogue to standing on a frozen pond and seeing something move in the depths underfoot. Beneath dark layers of ice, life exerts itself, utterly complete and removed from anything else. And that, gentle reader, is the best explanation I can give of the term "Pinteresque": What lies beneath as important as what walks above, silence as important as (sometimes more than) what is spoken.

Holly Twyford (left), as Anna, Steven Culp (center), as Deeley, and Tracy Lynn Middendorf, as Kate, perform a scene from Michael Kahn's production of "Old Times." Photo by Scott Suchman
Michael Kahn's perfectly balanced production of the enigmatic "Old Times" evokes that same glacial serenity with just a hint of the semi-dormant volcano below the ice. Deeley and Kate are hosting Anna, an old roommate of Kate's whom she hasn't seen in twenty years. It may or may not be significant that Kate remembers that Anna "stole things." She specifically remembers that Anna stole her underwear.

From the moment she arrives, the struggle with Deeley over Kate begins and the weapon is memory. Anna's memories of her old times with Kate, a time without Deeley, dominate most of a scene until Kate leaves to take a bath. Then Deeley "remembers" seeing Anna, a girl in a bar, long ago. He remembers seeing up her skirt, a night when Anna was wearing Kate's underwear. Or was it Kate in the bar all along?

They all remember seeing the movie "Odd Man Out" but Anna remembers seeing it with Kate, and Deeley remembers seeing Kate in the theatre alone. Kate, the serenely detached object of their undeclared feud, has memories which depart from both.

This pile-up of unspoken meanings creates a tension so dense as to be almost airless.

Steven Culp, as Deeley, has a sure hold on what it means to be a modern man desperately staking out the territory that is one woman while feeling threatened by another. It's his home, his wife, and yet he is invariably the "odd man out."

Holly Twyford, four-time Helen Hayes Award winner and D.C. stage fixture, takes over the role of Anna. There's a special power and grace in her portrayal, a humor and sureness as if the battle were won before it began. And she physically dominates the space, moving close to Kate, discussing her friend's habits with casual intimacy to her friend's husband. Deeley never has a chance.

If an ice-goddess can be warm, Tracy Lynn Middendorf pulls it off with Kate. Her beauty, silence, and puzzling half-smiles create a calm center from which she can observe the silent storm raging about her head. She is the least readable of the three because her memories are the least understood. From the moment Anna enters the scene, there is a pairing off with her friend as the two turn to watch the one, and the one struggles to keep from slipping.

Walt Spangler's scene design intensifies the calm, the ice, with a set of minimalist straight lines, white walls, white adjustable furniture with thin chrome legs and seven horizontal windows looking out on a sky of frosted blue-grey space.

In this precise setting, Kate and Anna adapt to one another's rhythms, weight changes in sync, lifting glasses together, observing silence with a drag on their cigarettes. The movements are just soft enough to prevent a look of choreography; they seem instead to ebb from identical heartbeats. Deeley can only become more desperate in his attempts to retain control.

For all that, it must be remembered that Pinter can be very funny. He doesn't tell jokes; he just lets people talk - or be silent - and the laughs follow. Done effectively, as it is here, the humor is in our own minds because we are invested in the thoughts on stage. There is one exception in the discussion between Deeley and Anna about how Kate dries herself after a bath, but that is funny because of the absurd lengths of the power play.

Scott Zielinski's lights are the highly artificial dims and whites best suited to the white on white room. Jane Greenwood's costumes accentuate Kate's remote sensuality in peach - the only real color to be seen - and Anna's dominance with her black dress and severe chignon.

By the end, a seismic shift has occurred and yet the audience, if they've been paying attention, will have no clue as to what actually "happened." In this supremely competent handling, the only certainty is in "the mistiness of the past."


What: "Old Times"
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co. Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit

Playing through July 3

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