Williamstheatre’s relentlessly unsubtle ‘Old Times’

“There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.” Anna’s wonderfully baffling words in Act One of Harold Pinter’s Old Times express not only the play’s cold, strange blurring of the past and present, but also the exceptional difficulty and confusion one encounters in mounting a production of the piece. Performing Pinter, like performing David Mamet or Samuel Beckett, is a kind of singular science. Though Pinter has his own influences and cannot be separated from popular movements of absurdist or realist theatre, he remains one of a kind. His is the kind of writing that usually requires a specific “acting style” that demands the utmost delicacy from cast, director, and designer. This is not to say that there is no room for interpretation; there’s just a lot less room.

What is paradoxical about a rigid interpretation of Pinter’s writing – especially Old Times – is that his situations try so desperately to defy interpretation. As in Beckett, Pinter’s plays offer us very little of the traditional satisfaction in resolution, yet we see his characters, as Martin Esslin puts it in The Theatre of the Absurd, “in the process of their essential adjustment to the world, at the point when they have to solve their basic problem—whether they will be able to confront, and come to terms with, reality at all.” Cruelly, his characters seldom realize how very essential these twisted, slice-of-life moments are, until it’s far too late. Their lives are caught, says Esslin, after “the very point when their real problems, marriage and the process of ageing, begin” – or where the musical comedy has ended.

The Williamstheatre production of Old Times, completing a four-show run Friday night at 8:00 and Saturday afternoon at 2:00, seldom captures this vision of existence as a terrifyingly inescapable and unsolvable mystery; in fact, it seldom captures any of Pinter’s intentions at all. The production, directed by Professor Jean-Bernard Bucky, could not be mistaken for anything other than Pinter, with its suffocating one-room settings and irreconcilable pause-heavy dialogue, but it accomplishes more a dependence on the playwright than an expansion on him. Indeed, the relentlessly unsubtle production comes dangerously close to being an outright satire of Harold Pinter.

It is true that few plays are as intensely difficult to get right (insofar as a “right” production can exist in this post-post-modern era) as Old Times, especially for a cast of college students who, most likely, have yet to experience the residual problems of a mid-life existence (the play’s three characters are all in their early forties). Playing Deeley, the only male of the show, is far different from playing jolly old Giles Corey or raging Stanley Kowalski. Deeley (played by Craig DiFolco ’99) is all three of these traits – jolly, old, raging – and then some. But – and this is essential – he’s also none of them. Pinter rarely allows his characters to let anything out: true emotion, as opposed to dishonest emotion, is kept inside, masked by distraction, denial, and, above all, absurdity. The only allowed acts of violence are indistinguishable from pathetic acts of impotence. Nothing is permitted to have singular meaning.

The production starts out fine. The audience is given an airily lit view of Deeley and Kate’s living room. The set design by Julie Sandy ’00, who also designed the lights, is a lucid expression of the neither-here-nor-there: wood floorboards jaggedly jut out over the floor of the DownStage, in a manner both abstract and violent, as though this room and the bedroom of Act Two (both set by Pinter in the same “converted farmhouse”) had simply landed there; the furniture is hard, cold steel, deceptively painted to look like wood; the background is a series of overlapping, vaguely translucent stiff-sheets, free-standing as haunting variations on the sliding Japanese paper door. The furniture and background are all in vague colors of powder blue and bleak lavender, and are lit in much the same way. The furniture is moveable (Pinter’s direction), while the standing sheets, with their beautifully permanent wrinkles (a brilliant expression of an irredeemable past) can both conceal and reveal. The lights quickly flash on Kate and Deeley (one of the show’s few exciting and suitable technical gestures), catching them in their own passive-aggressiveness, like upper-middle-class flies in honey. Simply put, the characters are trapped in a world of certain ambiguity.

But this is perhaps where the set, and the production itself, go too far: the ambiguity is too certain. Each pause, each absurd non-sequitur, each glare is hyper-emphasized in an attempt to make the audience constantly aware of Pinter’s presence. The playwright enters this production much like Anna (played by Sarah Thomas ’01) does: with a faint presence that quickly overwhelms.

“Now only. There is nothing else to listen to, or to watch: no mortgage foreclosure at midnight, no promise that it will be a nice day tomorrow. We are breathing, blinking, existing by the second hand on our watches.” The words of Walter Kerr, in his New York Times review of Pinter’s The Birthday Party, written more than a decade before Old Times, can comfortably be applied to the latter. Easy enough to describe as a desired dramatic effect, but how does can one accomplish this relentless sense of the Present on-stage? In a word, delicately.

Subtlety is a sorely underappreciated theatrical weapon on the Williams campus. The Adams Memorial Theatre is often reserved for heart-wrenching musicals or ambitious productions of Brecht or Shakespeare, which preclude any kind of hushed sense of intimate realism. So, when a small, masterfully crafted play like Old Times comes along, whose author, says Martin Esslin, “represents the most original combination of avant-garde and traditional elements,” the cast is barely able to handle it.

Each member of the ensemble has a radically different approach to the play, giving the production an undesirable lack of unity. DiFolco gives each word an exaggerated, cheeky earnestness, as though he were acting the 1940’s social realism of Arthur Miller or the droll flippancy of Oscar Wilde. His Deeley flies off the handle from the get-go, and is therefore, like the production, given no room to escalate for the audience. DiFolco seems sure of Deeley physically, as he slouches around, occasionally draping his leg over a chair, but his voice has yet to solve itself, at times struggling desperately to break free from this unsatisfying Pinter world.

Sarah Thomas, uncomfortable in low heels and far too bullyish in tight hair and a black power-suit, acts in Super-Pinter mode, giving each word a tone of deliberate weirdness. Her presence is remarkably assertive – she has a steady concentration which expresses itself beautifully in an often-used intense gaze – but it is pushed too far. Her competitions with Deeley for Kate’s love and attention are obviously staged and wholly unbelievable.

Emmy Lou Diaz ’01, playing Kate, has a strangely wavering concentration. She says her lines with a nicely intense strength, and only sometimes gives into flights of the melodramatic, but her final monologue is undercut by over-staging and over-lighting (it seems that almost any lighting in this play would be over-lighting). The monologues of the play – huge landmarks within furious back-and-forth banter – he punched through with spotlight emphasis. They are delivered not as part of a cruel power-play, but as dramatic pleas to the audience, putting a bold amount of weight on Pinter’s notion of the “essential adjustment.”

Jean-Bernard Bucky takes virtually no advantage of the DownStage’s rare intimacy, as the entire cast overenunciates each word as if it were being said in a football stadium (or on the set of His Girl Friday); much of the play’s unsettling humor is therefore sacrificed, as each word becomes stubbornly invaluable. The production seems almost afraid to strike a quiet chord within its audience – it doesn’t want to sneak up.

The overall effect of this non-subtlety is a tragic boredom: we are never engaged in the present and therefore everything slows down to a frightening drag. Martin Esslin notes that Pinter, though certainly an absurdist, considers himself “a more uncompromising, ruthless realist than the champions of ‘social realism’ could ever be,” because he refuses to offer any solutions or complete character motivations. The Williamstheatre production of Old Times simply goes the wrong way, by futilely searching for a solution that isn’t there.

Next Week: Williamstheatre’s other Spring Repertory Play, An Evening of Christopher Durang.