It’s Pinter, Plain and Simple

Jan Herman is a Times staff writer

Director David Chambers proudly calls himself “a theatricalist by nature.” But it’s not OK to call him a maniac unless it’s spelled “Maine-iac.”

“I live about six months of the year on an island off the Maine coast,” he says.

Known for his concept-driven productions at South Coast Repertory, he concedes with a laugh that it’s “a great exercise in restraint” for him to stage a minimalist play such as Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” which opens Friday on SCR’s Second Stage.

“It’s like trying to write a sonnet after you’ve been doing free verse,” he says. “This is not one of my spectacles. I’m not doing a number on it.”


The St. Louis native, who turned 52 on April Fool’s Day, is known both for massaging the classics with a combination of splashy style and prowling intellect and for simply being provocative with risky new plays.

After making his debut at South Coast in 1988--an Olympic year in which he lavished attention on Louise Page’s “Going for the Gold,” a British play about female Olympians--Chambers struck a nerve in 1990 with his sleek mounting of Howard Korder’s “Search and Destroy,” a gritty play about drugs, money and Hollywood ambitions. The smartness of that production went a long way toward helping Korder win the first Ted Schmitt Award for outstanding premiere of a play in Los Angeles or Orange counties.

Chambers followed with a subtler-than-expected version of Manuel Puig’s histrionic “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1991), then delivered his Afro Cuban Shakespeare. That show was a dazzling, multiracial “Twelfth Night” (1992) set in the Caribbean with lots of conga drums and a bit of Santeria--and it bewitched South Coast audiences.

But Chambers’ eclectic body of work at South Coast has not been received with universal acclaim.

His Moliere stagings--”The Miser” (1993) and “The Misanthrope” (1995)--although funny and daring, often misfired. And Ibsen devotees found themselves divided by his operatic “Hedda Gabler” (1994), which tested their tolerance for demonic symbols. Moreover, last season’s collaboration with Christopher Durang on a newish collection of satirical sketches, “A Mess of Plays,” drew both positive and negative reviews.

“South Coast is one of the few places that will not play the ‘hot name’ game,” Chambers says. “They simply say, ‘We invest in the artist.’


“They recognize there will be stronger and weaker showings. But they don’t doubt the artist when that happens. It’s not a matter of saying, ‘You’re as good as your last show.’ That’s very rare.”

The investment in Chambers was formalized after “Search and Destroy,” when he was named an associate artist of the company, a title awarded to just three others in the theater’s 34-year history--playwright Craig Lucas, director Mark Rucker and set designer Michael Devine.

South Coast gets its investment back from Chambers through more than directing. As a faculty member of the Yale School of Drama, where he has taught for the last decade, he’s in a position to spot talent early for the company and also offers an insider’s view of the theater scene in New York, where he lives when not in Maine.

“I’m a long-distance commuter,” he adds, having just done a 24-hour, cross-country turnaround between rehearsals to teach a class at Yale.

But despite his wide-ranging career--he has worked both on and off-Broadway and at various regional theaters--Chambers hasn’t had any previous experience directing Pinter.

“I’ve never done him,” he says. “I’ve done numerous British plays. And one can see in ‘Old Times’ the extraordinary influence of Pinter on, say, a David Hare, whose plays I greatly admire. But I’ve never actually gone to the tap root. So it seemed a good proposition to take a Pinter on.”


First produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, “Old Times” (1971) centers on a movie director and his wife at their English country home during a visit by the wife’s former roommate.

“Pinter’s agenda in ‘Old Times’ is the way that memory informs our image of the present,” Chambers says. “Our memories may be wildly inaccurate or wildly fabricated. But we build a memory train to identify and claim what we’ve been through and who we think we are. One of the characters says, ‘If I say it happened, it did happen.’ ”

“What intrigues me is the detective story of trying to penetrate this often elusive play and pin down what we think may or may not have happened. But I’m really interested in what’s mysterious, not what’s explicable.”

Taking on “Old Times” is also a practical proposition for Chambers, because it is a small-scale show that did not need the large amount of pre-production required by his spectacles.

That time and energy is going into his current obsession (“I have a new one every couple of years”), which is to re-create the landmark production of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Inspector General” that Vsevolod Meyerhold staged in Moscow in 1926.

The $350,000 project will become a co-production by the Yale Drama School and the St. Petersburg Academy, with each institution providing a large complement of actors for the combined company. Chambers will co-direct with Russian director Genadi Trostianetsky.


The English-language version of the play, with Americans in the leads, will premiere Oct. 7 at Yale’s University Theater in New Haven. The Russian-language version will premiere Oct. 17, with Russians in the leads, at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.

“If I have any artistic mentor from the past, it’s Meyerhold,” Chambers says. “His ‘Inspector General’ was, by all accounts, including the negative ones, the most provocative, the most brilliant thing that had appeared on the Moscow stages since the 1890s and the turn of the century, when Chekhov and Stanislavski arrived.

“Meyerhold and Stanislavski can be described as defining the fundamental poles of 20th century Western theater. One pole, Stanislavski, is psychological or lyrical realism; the other, Meyerhold, is intentional theatricalism.”

Chambers says he and associates spent roughly a year researching archives in Moscow in 1996, dredging fragments of information about Meyerhold’s “Inspector General” from the records in an attempt to piece together an equivalent of sorts to Stanislavski’s prompt books, rehearsal notes and study materials for Chekhov’s plays.

“Unfortunately,” Chambers notes, “Meyerhold was cut off. He became a vilified artist after having been a hero. ‘The Inspector General’ was taken off the boards. His name was deleted from the artistic record of the Soviet Union for 25 years. He was shot in 1940 in Lubyanka prison, most likely under Stalin’s orders. We’ve lost touch with him. There is no living record the way there is a living record of Stanislavski.”

Where does Pinter fall between the poles of Meyerhold and Stanislavski?

“Well,” he says, “I’ve always felt that Pinter’s stuff, like Chekhov’s, is much funnier than we give it credit for. Maybe it’s an artistic tic of mine.


“Pinter’s closer to Stanislavski, certainly in terms of how one approaches him as a performer. But I’m more interested in seeing the way humor exposes. True humor is actually exposure. ‘Old Times’ really is Pinter’s ‘weasel beneath the cocktail cabinet.’ ”

Reminded that Pinter always regretted describing the play that way, Chambers demurs.

“Sure, he slipped that remark into an interview somewhere as a joke. He says he just made it up, that it doesn’t mean anything. Except the image is so startling, no wonder he can’t shake it. It’s a profound and terrifying image. As Freud says, ‘There are no jokes.’ ”


“OLD TIMES,” South Coast Repertory, Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Dates: Opens Friday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. (except May 17). Ends May 18. Prices: $18-$39. Phone: (714) 957-4033.