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"Old Times" - That Obscure Object of Desire

(c) Drama Urge

June 24, 2011



By John F. Glass

Imagine hearing a work by your favorite composer conducted not only in a different key but a different tempo. That's something like the experience you'll get while attending Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Harold Pinter's Old Times (running to July 3), directed by Michael Kahn. Pinter plays are renowned for their pregnant pauses and unclear meanings, but Mr. Kahn's staging is so drawn out and ambiguous, you may think that a parody of the playwright is being offered or worse that Pinter was toying with the audience.

L-R Holly Twyford, Steven Culp & Tracy Lynn Middendorf have different views. Photo: Scott Suchman
The set-up is a vintage triangle and, lest you miss it, there are numerous references to Odd Man Out, a 1947 Anglo-Irish film noir classic (which abounds in mystery, intrigue, and the surreal). A husband named Deely (Steven Culp) and wife Kate (Tracy Lynn Middendorf) are visited in their home by Kate's long lost friend Anna (Holly Twyford) who have some disagreement over how they met 20 years ago (or do they?). I've heard that the director would not reveal to the actors his interpretation of the characters' motivations: they were to provide their own. As a consequence, each of them appears to be in his or her own play. This seems to work for Mr. Culp's character, who playing off the other two, has a chance to develop into something of substance. But Ms. Twyford's animated portrayal of Anna set against the super lethargic Kate as interpreted by Ms. Middendorf strikes many discordant notes and seems cartoonish. Mr. Kahn has also chosen to emphasize the static nature of the world the three exist in, with minimal movement. Most of the dialogue is delivered by the cast either seated (or recumbent) or standing stock still. So the 85 minute play, with an intermission, starts to feel like a long march mid-way through the first act.

The design is arresting even if it doesn't quite serve the direction or script. Walt Spangler's sleek, solid white set suggests a postmodernist world, somewhere out of time, and the ever-intensifying lighting provided by Scott Zielinski flushes out truth wherever it may be hiding - the antithesis of the noir genre. Jane Greenwood's splashy costumes pin the characters down.

The program indicates that Old Times (1971) is a play about memory, citing research in the last decade which suggests that Pinter was way ahead of his time by equating belief with memory. This is inaccurate at best since the research about the malleability of memory had being going on for decades before Pinter took it up creatively. At the least, it misrepresents the playwright's intentions. Following in the absurdist tradition of Pirandello, Pinter was interested in the arbitrariness of meaning as well as memory. To paraphrase from both, it's true if you think it's true. And perhaps that will be your reaction to this production of the play: You'll like it if you think you do and conversely.

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