Harold Pinter's Old Times remains an entertaining puzzler

Harold Pinter's Old Times is a three-person fugue with strong currents of sexual rivalry. At the start, Deeley and Kate, a married couple, are awaiting the arrival of Kate's old friend Anna - who is actually on stage with them, her back to the audience. No sooner does Anna move front and center than she and Deeley begin dueling over Kate, even engaging in a rivalrous songfest, a medley of old tunes that range from "They Can't Take That Away From Me" to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Words, and the memories that words define, are the ammunition in this duel, and reality - along with space and time - is infinitely pliable. Kate remembers that Anna used to steal her underpants; Anna says Kate liked her to borrow them. Deeley says he first met Kate at the movie Odd Man Out, when she was the only other person in the cinema, but Anna explains later that she and Kate saw Odd Man Out together. And there are hints that as young secretaries in London, Kate and Anna may have been lovers. "There are things I remember which may never have happened," Anna remarks at one point, "but as I recall them, so they take place." She goes on to describe a man weeping at night in the flat she and Kate once shared. Kate, fairly quiet through all this, leaves to take a bath. On her return, she delivers a narrative that demolishes the others.

Old Times can't really be understood in any logical way. Critics suggest that perhaps the action takes place in one of the character's minds, or perhaps one of them is dead, or perhaps Anna and Kate are the same person, or perhaps Anna represents parts of Kate that aren't reconciled to her marriage. This either-or gambit is a useful critical approach - you get to sound intelligent without committing to an interpretation – but none of these concepts works for this production. I saw Old Times a few years ago in Fort Collins, and the metaphysical element was so strong that I was happy to succumb to Pinter's rhythms and let his astonishing language — that constant sense that meaning was moving beneath the words rather than shaping them — mesmerize me. Parts of the Paragon production held me just as rapt, but I also wanted to yell at the playwright: For God's sake, tell us what you mean.

This is a good production, buoyed by strong performances, so I'm not quite sure why I also found it irritating. Perhaps because I watched the final rehearsal rather than opening night, and those tiny variations in timing and concentration that make the difference between a competent performance and an inspired one weren't yet solidified. Or maybe because director Suzanne Favette's interpretation is more realistic than most. Anna, Kate and Deeley are real people here, with Anna still very much in love with Kate, Deeley alternately bullying and afraid as he fights for his wife, and Kate enigmatic much of the time but dissolving into very human tears at the end. This is a perfectly reasonable approach, but I kept wondering why these quite recognizable characters were acting so weird.

Kevin Hart seems to lose concentration now and then as Deeley, but when his feet are firmly under him, he comes through with an effective and powerful performance. The role of Anna is difficult because she's supposed to be at once sensual and menacing, yet Emily Paton Davies pulls it off with honor; during Pinter's famed pauses, you find yourself watching her eyes, trying to figure out what she was thinking. Playing Kate, Carolyn Valentine is alternately impermeable as required and girlishly pleased with the others' tributes. I had no idea how to read her grief at the end, however; I had always seen Kate's monologue more as a reclamation of the self the others had tried to tear in two than as an emotional breakdown. Anna's weeping and Deeley's silence also threw me. In most productions, it's Deeley who weeps as the play closes, an echo and concretization of Anna's earlier story about the weeping man that, on some sub-verbal level, creates a deeply satisfying symmetry. Still, this is a smart new take on a resonant puzzler.

 
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