If “Exit, pursued by a bear” is the world’s most famous stage direction, Pinter’s “Pause” comes in a close second. Lesser productions of the dramatist’s works take that as an excuse for portentously held moments that leave audiences baffled. Mercifully, Jamie Lloyd’s smart revival of two early Pinter plays, “The Lover” and “The Collection,” never allows such frozen confusion to surface. Lloyd and his crack cast are so effortlessly in command of the subtext that silences are charged with tension. These twinned studies of sexual power play are revealed as jet-black comic thrillers.
Just as with his 2007 revival of Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” Lloyd doesn’t waste a second in setting the tone. As the houselights go down, the auditorium is ignited by the preternaturally perky snap of plucked strings and the echoing cool hum of a vibraphone. Ben and Max Ringham’s pitch-perfect score doesn’t merely evoke the early ’60s — “The Collection” dates from 1961, “The Lover” from 1963 — it alerts auds to the sardonic, sinister mood.
Although it’s about sexual role playing and fantasy within marriage, “The Lover” is the purer of the two pieces. In seemingly off-hand fashion, clipped and precise Richard (Richard Coyle) asks his wife Sarah (Gina McKee) if she will be entertaining her lover this afternoon. She will indeed, she says, at which point Richard sails off to work.
Abandoning her trademark dolor, McKee is mesmerizing. Squirting air-freshener aloft and high-heeling her way about Soutra Gilmour’s monochrome household complete with black Venetian blinds and French windows, her crisp Sarah is preening and serene. With her husband out of the way, she switches from a print day dress into slinky, wraparound leather.
The carefully teased out gag is that Max, the lover with whom she acts out hilariously torrid sexual fantasies, is none other than her husband. Yet the play is much more than a one-trick sketch.
The elaborate game-playing that has kept their marriage alive for a decade is wearing thin. One of them is about to change the rules to potentially devastating effect. What has been archly amusing turns nasty and genuinely upsetting as the two embark upon a highly emotional tug-of-war. Both actors drop their blithe disguises to reveal unexpected reserves of pain in a captivating struggle for supremacy.
Despite equally deft playing, “The Collection” less easily escapes its TV origins.
The text cuts back and forth between married couple Stella and James (McKee and Coyle again) and another couple — young, touchy dress designer Bill (Charlie Cox) and his mentor Harry (Timothy West). Thanks in part to Gilmour’s perfectly restrained costume design, it is only gradually apparent that the latter are a gay couple.
Another study of secrets and lies, the play centers on what really did happen in a Leeds hotel where, so they tell James, Bill and Stella met and had sex. Or did they? Are they lying to their partners? And, if so, why?
Coyle’s beautifully calibrated James flips effortlessly between threatened and threatening. In one expert piece of staging, he towers astride prone, insolent Bill, demanding the truth. But instead of squirming, Cox’s excellently sullen but insinuating Bill flirtatiously sits up and addresses his riposte not to James’ face but to his crotch. Eyeballing one another in Pinter’s freighted silence, the two actors hold the entire audience in thrall.
West also treads a delicate line, building from benevolence through gruff irritation to an eruption of ice-cold control.
What Lloyd cannot achieve is the necessary fast edit between the two couples’ different locations. Despite Gilmour and lighting designer Jon Clark interleaving scenes to alternate between the two homes, what on TV would be a swift cut is rendered as a slightly dogged shift back and forth that puts a strain on some scenes.
From a historical perspective, the two plays are fascinating both for their thematic linkages and for the light they throw on Pinter’s later masterpieces like “Old Times” and “Betrayal.” All his mature themes of dominance and sexual shadow-boxing are already in place. Yet a production as astutely played and acutely funny as this proves auds need no prior knowledge of the dramatist.
At one point, Bill asserts: “We never touched. We just talked about what we would do.” That not only sums up what might have happened, it encapsulates Pinter’s dramatic approach. It’s a tribute to Lloyd and his cast’s microscopic attention to the detail and dynamics of both plays that auds remain happily glued to inaction.