These Foolish Things

Harold Pinter scares people. His plays can be obtuse, his characters off-putting and brittle. He likes to juggle time, tossing conversations around in a scene so that some characters occupy one plane of reality, while others exist somewhere else. He writes in choppy, stream-of-consciousness riffs. And then there are the pauses. Long...silent...pauses. Leave them out and Pinter's plays would be only half as long.

The famous Pinter pauses serve his plays on two levels. They allow the audience to fill in the blanks, creating their own explanations for the strange things his characters say and do. And a pause here and there also can come as a refreshing respite, for audience and actors, amid all the rapid-fire talking his characters engage in.

In the 1971 mystery/drama Old Times, now getting a nifty staging by The WingSpan Theatre Company at the Bath House Cultural Center, Pinter's characters yak a blue streak about old movies, old songs and old lovers. Just who was whose lover is the mystery here.

At the opening of Act 1, a middle-aged husband and wife sit in their quiet country house by the sea, nervously awaiting the arrival of the wife's roommate, whom she hasn't seen in 20 years. The globetrotting businessman husband, Deeley (played by Rene Moreno), fires a barrage of questions at enigmatic wife Kate (Laura Yancey) about the old roomie, Anna (Susan Sargeant). Deeley forces Kate to admit that Anna was not just her closest friend in London when they were in their 20s, but her only friend.

Enter Anna, a striding, statuesque woman full of the confidence Kate seems to lack. She has arrived at the seaside cottage full of bluster about her life with a rich husband in a cliff-side villa in Taormina, Sicily. She joins Deeley in what sounds like congenial chitchat:

Anna: You have a wonderful casserole.

Deeley: What?

Anna: I mean, wife.

Aha, darker themes begin to emerge. Woven through the plink-plonk of ordinary-sounding conversation are suggestions of unsettling events of the past.

Old Times is a play about memory, how accurately people remember certain painful or embarrassing moments in their lives and how those moments may conveniently be rewritten through tricks of memory later on. "I was once interested in the arts," says Kate, wistfully, "but I can't remember which ones."

Anna seems to offer the key to understanding the play when she says, "There are some things one remembers that may never have happened."

So, should we believe that Deeley really picked up Anna years ago at The Wayfarers' bar, long before he was married? Was Anna masquerading as Kate that night, right down to borrowing Kate's underthings? Or did Kate flirt with Deeley at a showing of the 1947 IRA thriller Odd Man Out in a "flea pit" movie house? Or was it Anna she hit on at the movies?

There is a strong lesbian vibe between the old roommates. Taunting Kate in front of Deeley, Anna launches into a story about once bringing a man home from a bar to their flat and seducing him in the dark. But Kate surprises Anna by picking up the story, revealing that she replaced the passed-out Anna in bed, pretending to be the other woman as she had sex with the stranger. Was the man Deeley? Was he aware of the deception?

As more is revealed about the threesome's past liaisons, Anna and Deeley compete for Kate's attention. Their duel consists of singing snatches of old songs--Blue Moon, I Get a Kick Out of You, These Foolish Things. A line or two from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is more Pinter playfulness. In Old Times, the three characters seem to be looking at their past lives through layers of smoke, the details a little fuzzy around the edges.

Good stuff, but it takes paying close attention to get into Pinter's devious ways with words. Like the script's frequent references to that movie, Odd Man Out. A big hint that Kate and Anna were galpals? Or just a cute way for Pinter to illustrate that, in this play, one character always is excluded from whatever is taking place at any one moment in a scene?

Despite director Niki Flacks' able handling of the script and the excellent cast, the action does get static here and there. On Nick Brethauer's sparsely furnished set, which consists of two doors, two elephant-gray chaise longues and a long, low upstage bench, there aren't many places for the actors to go. And why are they fake-smoking real cigarettes? Why is there no liquid in the brandy snifter or coffee in the pot? They pour beverages and sip the air. More weirdness a Pinter play doesn't need.

Nothing wrong with the acting, however. It takes actors with some years and scars of life experience on them to get these parts right, and Yancey, Moreno and Sargeant do. These are good actors giving good performances in an extremely difficult play. They manage the British accents just fine.

Tall, blond Sargeant has a deep, sonorous voice that makes her both sexy and a little scary. Yancey has the toughest role as Kate, who says the fewest words but is the center of attention. At times she must remain onstage, standing silent and stock-still for long stretches, as the other two deliver long bits of staccato badinage. She gets her big moment at the end of the 90-minute play, turning ugly on Deeley and giving him what-for.

Moreno makes an especially good Deeley, using the snarling expressions of the snooty Basil Fawlty as he smiles disingenuously at his wife, even as he hurls insults at her. It's worth noting how well Moreno's wheelchair, which he uses in life and onstage, works in the context of the play. When Kate finally has had enough of his verbal abuse, she gives the chair a strenuous shove that sends him rolling toward the door. Nice touch.

The play ends with all its mysteries unresolved. What was the women's relationship and why did Kate marry the sour Deeley, leaving Anna on her own in London? What is the real reason the old friend has dropped in for a visit after 20 years? She seems intent on staying a good, long while in this little house by the sea. Some revenge afoot perhaps?

Harold Pinter's Old Times leaves its characters tied up in knotty situations they probably will never figure out. It's up to us...(pause) do that.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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