Question Time

Though accents sometimes run askew, Kahn's command of his cast makes for a powerful delivery of Pinter's work

By Kate Wingfield
Published on June 2, 2011, 3:48am | Comments

Simple of premise and yet utterly engaging, mysterious and provocative, Harold Pinter's Old Times is a beautifully crafted play, the kind of work one might read again and again just to uncover and study its inner-mechanism. And yet to see it staged is to realize that it is also truly an actor's play. A master of the pregnant pause and the unsaid, Pinter is also one of the few playwrights who, in the hands of the right actors, captures the way in which we cower, question and wage war beneath our words. Done well, this is the place where the actor who can say one thing and suggest something entirely else rules supreme.

Old Times
Old Times
(Photo by Scott Suchman)

And in Old Times, Pinter's people parry, dodge and thrust their way through a series of deeply affecting themes: the myth-making of relationships, the delicacy of ego, and the intangibility of the memories upon which we build our identities. But they must also navigate the challenge of an artificial construct: a character who fails to engage except on her own terms, a cipher who may or may not hold the key to the others' sense of themselves.

Intent on providing a platform of intense clarity – sometimes literally – director Michael Kahn puts nothing between audience and words in this stunningly cohesive production. Though Walt Spangler's wittily modernist-spare sets and Scott Zielinski's sometimes stark, sometimes subtly evocative lighting nicely suggest Kahn's vision, they are quiet, effective commentary, not distraction. This is Pinter delivered unadorned and with the potential to be starkly powerful.

Thus, for the three actors of the play, the pressure is on. And it can be said, right out of the box, that all three understand what they need to convey. The only question is: Can they turn this knowledge into something palpably compelling and real? The short answer is a qualified yes.

Set in the seaside country house of the married couple Deeley and Kate, the play begins in the moments before the arrival of Kate's oldest and apparently only friend, Anna. It has been many years since the women have seen one another and the extroverted Deeley is intensely curious to see what the exceedingly introverted Kate thinks of her friend after the passage of so much time. When the vivacious Anna arrives and soon begins to challenge Deeley's assumptions of past and present, the myths upon which they have all relied come uncomfortably into question.

Amid the questing, witty and eventually emotionally fueled banter of Deeley and Anna, Kate remains almost silent even as she increasingly becomes the center of Pinter's vortex. With Absurdist aplomb, she declines to answer direct questions or fill silences. She leaves explanations begging or wanders off in the middle of a moment fraught with emotion. Keeping Kate engaging is a very tall order.

Uncompromisingly thin but girlish, Tracy Lynn Middendorf accomplishes much in giving her Kate a very distinct presence. Content to be imbued with the wants and needs of her admirers and controllers, she almost suggests the mystique and vulnerability of an Edie Sedgewick. But there is something in the way Middendorf gazes piquantly into the audience that argues with this portrayal. Whether it is meant to suggest awareness or a mind actively engaged elsewhere, it is delivered with too self-conscious a sheen. It reminds us of the actor's presence beneath the character and dilutes the fiction.

OLD TIMES
starstarstarstar
To July 3
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th St. NW
$38 to $89
202-547-1122
shakespearetheatre.org

As the intelligent, insecure and volatile Deeley, Steven Culp, channeling Roger Moore in his effort to carry off the English accent, knows precisely what unravels this man. His disingenuous cheer, thinly veiled sarcasm and outright assaults are all just as they should be – except that Culp is simply too loud and too forced. Several notches down and this would be a nuanced, affecting performance. Whether the emergence of a working-class accent during Deeley's biggest tantrum is intentional – thus perhaps explaining some of the volatility – is a tough call. Still, Culp almost nails it and remains very engaging to watch.

Hitting it out of the park and making this a production not to be missed is an astounding Holly Twyford as the keenly astute Anna. In total command of her accent and thus allowing us to savor Pinter's language unhindered, Anna grows in dimension with every utterance. And Twyford evokes not only this engaging, possibly emotionally dangerous woman, but also the entire past from which she hails. When Anna talks wistfully of sitting before the electric fire in her bedsit with Kate, one can see, feel and smell the coziness of the room and the life that went with it. This ability to conjure so vividly makes Anna's assaults on Deeley's memories all the more potent and unsettling. And yet when Deeley begins to declare war, Twyford quickly shows that Anna is not just out for blood but, like everyone here, holds close something precious too. To own and exude this myriad of human complexity is masterful.

Thus, overall, this is Pinter enacted with depth, clarity and lasting power. Attend with your favorite couple and see where it takes you.