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Two by Pinter at Least Offer Some Bold Choices

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

When playing an early Harold Pinter work like "The Collection," it pays to have daggers in mind before they truly come out. Xerxes Mehta, director of the Pinter twin bill "The Collection" and "The Lover" at Rep Stage, seems to know that, and accordingly his actors enter snarling.

Mehta's generally entertaining production is aggressively acted and designed in snappy, eye-catching blacks and whites by Elena Zlotescu, who is keen to the play's theme of mirror images. But pitch is everything in Pinter, where the vibrations between the lines can rattle as noisily as the grenade-like remarks themselves. And here, too often, sheer volume is allowed to stand in for danger.

Loud? Yes. Menacing? Sometimes.

Not that the two well-off couples in "The Collection" lack reasons to shout. James fears that his wife, Stella, slept with Bill. Naturally, that doesn't sit too well with Bill's partner, Harry.

Have the accused been unfaithful, or not? Pinter being Pinter, no one rushes in to clear things up. Instead, they settle into hazardous head games of "How could you think . . . ?" and "Well, what if I did?" The fascinating thing -- how Pinter became Pinter -- is that the truth doesn't seem to matter. "The Collection" is more than sufficiently driven by the suspicions and threats cloaked in the playwright's trademark mock-civil exchanges.

"You don't keep olives for your guests?" James asks.

"You're not my guest," Bill replies with the kind of logical, frigid repartee that characterizes both plays. "You're an intruder."

At times, the actors savor these nasty thrusts and parries, although in truth, they're better at preening in the sharp costumes Zlotescu creates. (The characters work in the fashion business, and this 1961 play clearly has been updated.)

Bolton Marsh, for instance, carries himself with perfect thuggish vanity as James, sporting a black suit and matching T-shirt, while Peggy Yates's vulnerable Stella radiates fashionista chic in her glossy white pantsuits. The heaviness of Bill Largess's Harry seems at least partly due to his crisp, traditional dark suit and tie, and later, even to his louche robe, undone almost to the navel. Timothy Andres Pabon's pouting, saucy Bill, with frosted tips, and striped shirt over a silky tank top, could have arrived fresh from a London runway after-party.

The ensemble's attractive bickering is somewhat undone, though, when it escalates into nose-to-nose posing and bellowing. The oversold exchanges reach a certain tension but end up bloodless -- not much damage done, despite the racket.

This "Lover" works the other way: Actors Nigel Reed and Marni Penning are expert at the role-playing of a twisted marriage, but the play itself isn't as sharp. Again, assumed infidelity is the springboard; husband and wife candidly agree that she's in the habit of taking an afternoon lover, but they both know it's really him in some sort of disguise.

Such fun, until it disgusts him, and then a marital negotiation begins -- well, you'd almost say in earnest, except it plays out through layers of their established pretending. There are shades of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" as the husband threatens to destroy their sustaining illusion.

Zlotescu, whose airy, bare-walled set neatly shifts its geometric balance for this play, costumes the couple in grays, and that suits the fog they stumble into. Reed convincingly veers from the husband's puckish indulgence to the faux lover's frisky fun and then to inexplicable bitterness, while Penning runs the gamut as the wife who thrives on the game and grows desperate to maintain the kinky status quo.

Maybe it's a little much when she presses herself against the walls in anguish, but by then, the slender play has churned too long in the same rut. Penning effectively sells the excess anyway, which is how it goes in this uneven yet alluring show: There's always something to hold on to.

Two by Pinter: "The Collection" and "The Lover," by Harold Pinter. Directed by Xerxes Mehta. Lighting design, Judith Daitsman; sound design, Ann Warren. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Feb. 25 at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Call 410-772-4900 or visit http://www.repstage.org.

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