Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly star in Harold Pinter's Old Times, directed by Douglas Hodge for Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre.
Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly star in Harold Pinter's Old Times, directed by Douglas Hodge for Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

The late Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter is noted for the inscrutability of his plays, with perhaps none more opaque than Old Times, which is now receiving a Broadway revival from Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre. While other playwrights obsess over plot and theme, Pinter has always seemed satisfied to let his audiences do that fretting for him. The result is a sustained dramatic tension persisting through a curtain of mystique. Under the deft direction of Douglas Hodge, Old Times casts its spell from the moment we enter the theater and refuses to relent until we leave.

Simultaneously hip and eerie, Thom Yorke's preshow music sounds like the ambient noise of a haunted cocktail lounge. The set solidifies this impression: A bar of top shelf liquor rises out of an obsidian crag. A wall of ice stands between two purple divans, its mere coolness justification enough for existing. Christine Jones' set looks like the latest Manhattan hotspot: CAVE, a spelunking-themed nightclub for the ultrawealthy and completely tasteless.

Japhy Weideman's lighting at the top of the show suggests we've indulged in a few too many designer martinis while there. The actors assume evocative tableaux between blinding flashes of light. These are the scant memories following a blackout during a particularly heavy night. A somewhat ridiculous cosmic swirl dominating the upstage wall hits us over the head with the strange, time-and-space-bending circumstances of the play: This is Pinter produced on the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise, where nothing is really as it seems.

Deeley (Golden Globe winner Clive Owen in his Broadway debut) and Kate (Kelly Reilly, also making her Broadway debut) live in a converted English farmhouse not far from the sea. Anna (Drama Desk winner Eve Best), Kate's old roommate from their wild 20s in London, visits from Sicily where she now lives with her Italian husband. The three immediately begin reminiscing about old times over chicly transparent cups of coffee and generous snifters of brandy. No one seems to remember events in exactly the same way.

The unreliability of our three characters and their narratives offers a lot of room for the actors to play, which this stellar cast does with great relish. Best conveys Anna's deception through a breezy confidence and Mona Lisa-like smile. Reilly's Kate seems more oblivious…but is she? Clearly the two women have a deep, complicated relationship that strongly hints at suppressed sexual passion. When Kate suggests a walk in the park, Anna immediately launches into a tirade about all the dirty horrible men in the park. She strokes Kate's hair and says, "You'll only want to come home if you go out. You'll want to run home...and into your room..." Deeley makes it clear with his ravenous eyes that he wouldn't mind joining them there.

Owen's specific and committed performance adds layers of intrigue to an already bewildering script. His Deeley appears increasingly anxious when faced with this conspiracy of women. His working-class diction indicates a climb into Kate and Anna's posh sphere. His words betray a lingering discomfort about living there. Speaking of Anna's glamorous life on the Sicilian coast he imagines, "A lobster and lobster sauce ideology we know f*ck all about, the longest legs in the world, the most phenomenally soft voices." Soft voices? He's obviously never actually been to Sicily, despite his earlier claims to the contrary.

Hodge excels at drawing out the comedy in Pinter's script, which could be read as a sly satire of British mannerisms and social customs. Hodge kicks it into high gear, almost to a ludicrous extent. There's just so much repressed desire circulating the stage and none of these people seems capable of expressing what he or she actually wants.

A one-hour barrage of inexplicable subtext and furtive glances, Old Times sends the audience on its way with more questions than answers: Who are these people? What are they upset about? Are Kate and Anna lesbians? "I think it's a waste of time," Pinter once remarked to critic Mel Gussow concerning such post-show guessing games. For the playwright, tone and drama were far more interesting than the specific circumstances which might undergird them. Some critics will argue that this is an excuse from a lazy dramatist. In truth, however, it's a lot harder to sustain our attention without those things. This beautiful and bewildering production holds us enthralled from beginning to end.