It takes a real gift to make the mere question “Do you?” at once sexy, funny and mysterious, but it long ago became clear that Helen McCrory is no mere actress. That rare performer who can simultaneously play intelligence and desire, a woman at once on the prowl and gently pained, McCrory turns out to be the Harold Pinter interpreter of one’s dreams. Those same qualities were on show, triumphantly, in the Donmar’s “How I Learned to Drive” and in McCrory’s Yelena two years ago in “Uncle Vanya,” directed by Sam Mendes. And they prove crucial to a play like Pinter’s 1971 “Old Times,” which turns on issues of absence, abandonment and loss, and whether a supremely malleable drama’s two female characters might in fact be one.
On the other hand, “in fact” isn’t a phrase readily applied to a text whose ellipses shift from production to production, along with a sense of where its erotic pivot lies. In the last London “Old Times,” on the West End in 1995, Julie Christie brought a sphinxlike command to the crucial role of Kate, the wife who is being fought over by her filmmaker husband, Deeley, and her best friend from 20 years before, Anna.
This time around, with McCrory playing Anna opposite Gina McKee’s curiously blank Kate, your attention is riveted from the start to the black-clad woman visible at the rear of William Dudley’s gauze-encased set. While the design literally shimmers, as if to make palpable the way the events of the play are filtered through the reflective echo chamber of memory, McCrory’s smoky, sultry Anna exists in the here and now: She’s the necessary anchor to a tantalizing but difficult play that, in an instant, can turn arid and opaque.
Roger Michell’s Donmar production, let it be said, is always intriguing, and one assumes it will only grow in impact and equilibrium as the run continues. (It ends Sept. 4.) If it’s not entirely as moving for now as it might be, that’s the result of a slightly studied quality to proceedings that only McCrory, at the moment, can puncture at will.
Listening to her lob snatches of song lyrics to Jeremy Northam’s bearded, easily bruised Deeley, you get the gamesmanship that is always prevalent in Pinter. But you also understand the fierce yet shifting sense of control that gives “Old Times” its abiding cunning, as its characters inhabit the three corners of an eternal — and eternally fragile — triangle that Pinter would go on to rewrite after a fashion, seven years later, in “Betrayal.” (That one shifted the gender balance by dealing with one woman and two men.)
“Old Times” is a considerably more evanescent piece of work, and it is bound to frustrate audiences who like their drama tidied up. No sooner has someone made a reference to the film “Odd Man Out” before the play’s obvious embodiment of that title would seem to be Deeley, the itinerant auteur who apparently exists on the periphery of the defining intimacies, sexual or not, between Anna and Kate.
Or is it Anna on the sidelines (after all, she’s the visitor who has come from Italy to Deeley and Kate’s seaside English retreat), or even Kate? “You talk of me as if I were dead,” remarks Kate softly, McKee’s way with a cigarette rather more accusatory than her delivery of the line. (Those phobic about smoking, beware: All three actors puff away.)
In “Old Times,” there’s no truth beyond the affective temperature of any one speaker at any one time. After all, as Anna says, in what is as close as Pinter here gets to a thesis statement, “There are things one remembers even though they may never have happened.” And that, rightly or wrongly, make one bleed.
Michell seems to want to push the temperature right up, which makes it doubly surprising that the production nonetheless tends toward the cool, as if taking its cue from the hard-edged chic of the furniture in the opening scene. Arguably too attractive (and a shade too young) for a middle-aged man looking back on his “slim-hipped” past, the always arresting Northam is an unusually volatile Deeley, who responds to the incursions into memory marked out by Anna like a caged beast fighting his corner.
By contrast, McKee’s initially reclining Kate — Anna, tellingly, has adopted that same position by play’s end — can’t help but seem a shade remote. Reunited with Michell, who brought her to filmgoers’ attention via “Notting Hill,” McKee has the Modigliani-like visage for Pinter, but not yet the power: She’s a frustrating cipher at the play’s much fought-over heart.
One certainly couldn’t ask for a tonier or more media-friendly creative team, from Tony winner Rick Fisher, whose lighting at times seems to scorch those corner of the characters’ souls that they are keeping hidden even from themselves, to film composer David Arnold (“The Stepford Wives”), whose music is part of a surprisingly busy soundscape that lends its own level of interpretation throughout. (The precise aural meaning of the final moments, for instance, is sure to prompt debate.)
But nothing can distract attention from the score mapped out by Pinter that remains as scintillating as it is suggestive, which is just one of the reasons that even an imperfect “Old Times” almost always merits our time.