In SCR's 'Old Times,' the Story Teeters in a Delicate Balance

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The possible sexual entanglements of three people in a room hold abundant mystery for Harold Pinter. In his 1971 play "Old Times," the mystery may be rich, but the writing and the amount of information he gives us are spare. The drama exists in the balance between this richness and spareness. What happened in the past between the characters is quite unclear. What's happening in the present is a guessing game that the audience can read as it would a detective story.

In the play, now at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage in Costa Mesa, a married couple, Kate (Jeanie Hackett) and Deeley (James Warwick) entertain the wife's old roommate Anna (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) at their English country house. These three form a triangle, which director David Chambers makes physically clear in his tight staging, where every turn of a head is a finely calibrated movement.

Chambers also understands the famous Pinter silences, the places in which characters' thoughts can be maddeningly almost heard. But though Chambers gets the precision and the spareness just right, he and his actors have not mined the richness, the underlying mystery. Chambers has offered a good and competent production, but not one that gives us a compelling reason to rediscover the play in a profound way.

*

The characters are understandable enough, even if their relationships remain obscure. As Kate, Hackett is slightly bored, and too comfortable in her role as an object of desire for the other two characters. Van Valkenburgh's Anna is predatory, challenging and haughty, which titillates Deeley as much as it worries him.

Warwick's Deeley is a bit of a square, possessive and threatened, yet predatory himself. It's no coincidence that the movie at which he met his wife is "Odd Man Out," also the movie, Anna coolly informs him, that she went to see with Kate.

This merry-go-round, this shifting net of sexual alliances is quite elegant to watch. The glance between Deeley and Anna as the brandy is poured, the pause, the crossing and uncrossing of Anna's legs, the head turning to look, the suggestive smoking of cigarettes, all actions seems permeated with ominous purpose.

The sexual undercurrents get stronger and stronger. Anna relates the story of years ago finding a strange man who stayed the night in the room the women once shared. Does Deeley see this both as a threat and a turn-on? Is Anna trying to turn Deeley on? Did Deeley in fact know Anna intimately in the old days? And just how intimate were Anna and Kate?

Beyond the game of finding answers to these questions, however, there is little at stake. It seems as if the actors worked hard to get the gestures right and didn't have time to dig to the roots of the play. It's not that we have to know literally who these people are and exactly what they're feeling. But we need to have a sense that there is something deep and meaningful beneath the posturing. The actors only convey the well-delivered clues themselves.

Ralph Funicello's handsome set suggests an old farmhouse with Pinter-esque minimalism--wooden beams, dark wood French doors, white sofas; he has fashioned a brown-and-white chess board for a production that has all the right moves. Elegantly sparse, admirably tight, "Old Times" at South Coast manages to be compelling without being truly interesting.

* "Old Times," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2:30 p.m.; except May 17, 8 p.m. only. Ends May 18. $18-$39. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 90 minutes.

James Warwick: Deeley

Jeanie Hackett: Kate

Deborah Van Valkenburgh: Anna

A South Coast Repertory production. By Harold Pinter. Directed by David Chambers. Sets Ralph Funicello. Costumes Shigeru Yaji. Lights Ashley York Kennedy. Sound Garth Hemphill. Production manager Michael Mora.

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