The Roundabout Theater Company’s Broadway revival of “Old Times” can’t possibly miss. Harold Pinter’s three-handed battle for sexual dominance, first performed on Broadway in 1971, is an incredibly sexy play, properly cast here with three incredibly sexy performers: Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best. Director Douglas Hodge, who won a Tony Award as an actor in “La Cage aux Folles,” has made some curious production choices, but once the erotic games begin, you hardly notice that the writer’s signature pauses and ominous silences have been trimmed.
The most baffling aspect of the production isn’t the play’s elusive meaning or Pinter’s ambiguous dialogue — it’s the setting. As rendered by set designer Christine Jones, the scene is a restored farmhouse that Deeley (Owens) and his wife, Kate (Reilly), have decorated in a decidedly modern, minimalist style.
The two low sofas on either side of an assertive man-chair make a handsome statement. But what to make of that solid block of ice in the shape of a door that dominates the room, which itself takes a twirl on a turntable for no earthly reason? Or the eyeball-searing strobe lights and that giant psychedelic whirligig and the loud metallic assault on our ears? (The play’s original music is by Thom Yorke of Radiohead.)
It’s a blessed relief when things settle down and Pinter’s seductive parlor game for grownups can begin in earnest.
In Reilly’s controlled performance as the play’s most controlling character, Kate doesn’t seem to be looking forward to a visit from an old friend she hasn’t seen in years. Lounging on the sofa in a fitted skirt and silk blouse (outfit by Constance Hoffman) that sets off her mane of red hair (Amanda Miller did everyone’s hair), this beautiful Ice Queen claims her throne for observing the action from which she will keep herself carefully removed.
Deeley has taken a more avid interest in their expected guest, especially when he learns that she and Kate were roommates during that heady time in the 1960s when London was swinging into new life. Owen has perfected the smoldering, could-be dangerous look of an imperfectly civilized hoodlum, so it’s a nice jolt when he drops his cool facade and jumps at the idea that Kate’s old friend might provide some insights into his inscrutable wife.
The stage is well set, then, for Eve Best when she makes her appearance (in a slinky white number) as Anna, the bosom friend that Kate claims to have forgotten. (The man-spread with which Deeley welcomes her entrance is hilarious.)
There’s nothing reserved about Anna, who exudes that air of confidence that comes from being married to a rich man. Best doesn’t let her take a breath between entertaining anecdotes about the wild adventures of Anna and Kate (“We were young then, but what stamina”) partying it up in London. But there’s no veiled threat or implicit menace to this Anna, and by making an uncomfortable reference to the silence of the house in the country, she makes us long for some of that Pinteresque stuff.
The sexual dynamics of the piece keep shifting, which is what holds our attention in a play with absolutely no action. At first, Deeley seems to be playing the predator, trying to claim both women for himself. (Indeed, one interpretation of the play is that Kate and Anna are two aspects of the same character.) Another trope finds both women competing for Deeley, with Anna simultaneously seducing and attacking him, and Kate warning Anna away from her property.
But eventually both Anna and Deeley focus their efforts on winning Kate, who becomes more and more remote in her icy sovereignty. Their duel seems to rest on which of them can claim the past as truth. Anna easily evades the issue when she says, “There are some things one remembers, even though they may never have happened.”
Pinter developed that elegant argument elsewhere, by defining the past as “what you remember, imagine you remember, or pretend to remember.” Or, he might have added, what someone forces you to remember.