We expect a playwright to understand his characters better than anyone else, but we don't insist that he act them better than anyone else. Most playwrights are, in fact, lousy actors. Harold Pinter would be impressive in "Old Times" even if we didn't know that he wrote it.
That's the good news from the Henry Fonda Theatre. The bad news is that Pinter's co-star, Liv Ullmann, seems to find the play another country. Ullmann can be a luminous stage actress--I've never forgotten her Anna Christie on Broadway--but she's muddy here, as though unsure herself what the play is about.
That's been in dispute, of course, ever since "Old Times" was new (1971). Obviously it's a triangle play, with a possessive husband (Pinter) battling to keep his wife (Nicola Pagett) from falling under the sway of an old friend who has dropped in from nowhere for dinner (Ullmann).
Plainly, he's not trying to save his wife so much as his vision of himself. If a man loses his wife to another woman, he's done for. But that last begins to be interpretation. And the play's use of the past--the "old times" that these three people keep remembering (or inventing)--is totally up for grabs.
Did the husband really know the old friend as well as the wife back in the old days, as he now claims? Whom did he actually pick up at that flea-bitten cinema? (The film, it is agreed, was "Odd Man Out.") Whose skirt did he look up?
Beyond the immediate questions float unvoiced larger ones. Is the past something that we compose for ourselves, quite unscrupulously, out of the needs of the moment? Conversely, can the past literally return? At times, the two women seem to be back in the old flat, with the husband very much the odd man out.
It's a mysterious play, rather than an academic one. Some directors have even turned it into a kind of seance, culminating in the husband's symbolic death. What's interesting in this revival--directed by David Jones, but presumably in a key that Pinter found congenial--is its matter-of-fact tone, as if nothing all that unusual were, in fact, going on, just three people recalling old times.
Rather than the portentous pauses and significant glances of other productions, this "Old Times" plays lightly, almost in the vein of a Coward comedy. Certainly it's the funniest of the half-dozen productions I've seen. Pinter the actor is largely responsible for that.
Some have played the husband as a bear--an increasingly wounded one. Pinter makes him a fox, with endless resources. The facade is harmless, even nerdlike (rimless glasses, white socks). The manner is feckless.
But this is a man defending his property, and he won't be terrorized. He sees the threat from Ullmann instantly--has seen it ever since Pagett invited her down to their coastal cottage--and he sets out to cut her to ribbons, so deftly that she won't know it until the game is up.
Under that bland and blinking exterior, this is truly a nasty man. But a great game player. For each of Ullmann's "memories," he's got a more telling one. He'll also match his eroticism against hers, when they're alone. This is championship competition, with the voice level never rising above the conversational. Perhaps one has to be British to pull it off.
Unfortunately, Ullmann doesn't give Pinter any competition at all, except in the eroticism department. No small matter, but this is a contest of wit above all, and Ullmann's character rarely seizes the advantage, rarely goes to the net. It's not believable, then, when the husband cracks. He was winning in a walk.
The real winner in the play--again, this is interpretation--is the wife. Pagett plays her in such a tidy, assured manner that this doesn't come as a surprise, as it has in other productions. It's a bit too clear that this is a woman who creates her own orbit, while seeming to fall into that of others.
Pagett's clarity, though, is a joy. (Clarity of characterization, rather than voice. Everyone could afford to project a little more strongly.) This production doesn't clear up the play's big questions--they aren't meant to be cleared up--but it does bring "Old Times" closer to one's own living rooms than usual, unveiling its rituals as games that, in one form or another, and not for the good, most human beings play.
A definitive production? In some ways, including Timothy O'Brien's set--handsome, spare, cold. One wouldn't want to live on that deserted coast for long. A definitive performance, certainly, from Pinter. But Ullmann needs help. At the Fonda, 6162 Hollywood Blvd., through Nov. 24. (213) 410-1062.