When it comes to love and sex, we tend to think of intimacy as a goal or an ideal — something to work toward. But that delightful state, by its very definition, both implies and requires exclusion. It's tough to be intimate in a crowd. Even a third wheel can be one too wheel too many and must be rolled away.
Or not, of course.
"Old Times," the brief but masterful Harold Pinter drama from 1971, is certainly concerned with the juicy current possibilities of matters amorous and triangular. But this spare, oft-revived story of an English couple, Kate and Deely, who welcome into their renovated farmhouse a mysterious woman, Anna, with whom Kate shared a London flat (and maybe more) 20 years prior, is also about the force of our memories of intimacies, be they real or imagined.
"There are things I remember which may never have happened," Anna says at one telling point. "But as I recall them, so they take place."
Thus most productions of "Old Times" — and this one-set, two-couch play, easy to produce but fiendishly difficult to produce well, is done in Chicago quite frequently — are eloquent, well-spoken, self-consciously dramatic, rather gauzy affairs that focus on the verbal games started by a menacing, well-dressed stranger from the past. They are not, in general, especially intimate. Yet Kimberly Senior's very shrewd, fresh and beguiling new Strawdog Theatre Company production — which features actors who feel hungrier and are rather younger than has become typical — is much more interested in the possibilities of the present. In other words, that famously requisite Pinter menace here flows neither from pregnant pauses nor nostalgia, but from the dangerous intimacy of what might happen right now.
Or, to put this another way, this is a very sexy production of what unspools here as a very sensual play. It will have you on the edge of your seat.
Senior — one of those savvy Chicago directors who works in major theaters but also knows the rewards of working in small and seemingly quotidian spaces like Strawdog's second-floor stage — achieves this mostly by keeping the environment cold and allowing her warm-bodied actors to keep floating very, very close together.
That sounds so simple as to be barely worth comment, but I have memories (which may never have happened, of course) of many an "Old Time" wherein the three characters of this little drama sat on separate chairs, talking across gulfs of isolating space and staring at each other, Pinteresquely. At one point here, though, the expectant, nervous heads of Abigail Boucher's Kate, Michaela Petro's Anna and John Henry Roberts' Deely are literally inches apart. Boucher and Petro, both beautiful actresses elegantly attired by designer Aly Greaves Amedei, each wear striking false eyelashes — emblematic of 1971, indicative of mutual competition intensified by age, and, when fluttering, a reminder that it's just as important to be desired as to desire.
The seating at Strawdog is split into two sections, which Senior carefully exploits with a variety of angles. At one point from my perch, two sets of eyelashes appeared in profile, intersected only by a whiff of panic on Roberts' face; he plays Deely as a man surrounding by eroticism he can't ever understand. It's not the usual approach, necessarily (the woman are very firmly in charge here), but it makes a point about a man who only got lucky once, if at all. In Senior's reading, he's a third wheel desperately trying not to be consigned to the ditch, where he probably belongs.
Both Petro and Boucher are fascinating and their interactions are complex. This is a play perched on the very knife edge of eroticism, and at Strawdog, it sits there deliciously and dangerously. Instead of playing the usual femme fatale with a posh accent and an MFA, the superb Petro reminds us of two crucial things about Anna: She was not very long ago just one of those pretty London girls, hanging out with escorts and only dimly aware of her limited shelf-life. And she is now, as she always was, vulnerable, mostly alone, and ever in search of intimacy. Maybe even of the kind she can't control.
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes