Normally when people gather to rehash old times, the memories are sweet, if vague, and the occasion serves to revive bonds that have loosened over the years.
In Harold Pinter's 1971 drama, "Old Times," a middle-aged husband, his wife and his wife's best friend are having their first reunion in two decades. Their memories, however, are wounding and divisive, and the occasion prolongs a sexual rivalry every bit as lacerating as it was in the past.
To say at this point in his celebrated career that Pinter is the master of the enigmatic is to state the elementary. He has long since convinced us that -- on the stage, at least -- enigma can lie at the heart of human relationships, that communication is treacherous and that reality lies in the cloudy eye of the beholder. What's worth observing is how fundamentally dramatic and unexpectedly entertaining such an opaque view of the world can be.
Revived last night at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, "Old Times" remains an elegant and titillating conundrum, far richer in laughter than you might suspect from a description of its elusive texture. Played with lethally cool detachment by Tana Hicken (Kate, the wife), boyish aggression by Stanley Anderson (Deeley, the husband) and barbed-wire grace by Halo Wines (Anna, the friend), it transforms the age-old triangle into a Rubik's Cube. However you turn it, you just can't get the colors -- or in this case, the characters' respective recollections -- to match.
The situation appears to be this: In the heady days when they were roommates in London, Anna and Kate had a lesbian attachment from which Anna seems to have emerged the dominant force. Anna may also have had a sexual relationship with Deeley. But Deeley ended up marrying Kate, while Anna moved on to Sicily and a luxurious existence as the wife of a millionaire. Now that the three are momentarily back together, the old passions and antagonisms work their way to the surface. Anna maintains she's only visiting her best friend, but the undercurrents say otherwise: She just may want to reclaim Kate, wrest her from Deeley and one-up him in the process.
Other than that, there are few certainties in "Old Times." Pinter's characters can be remarkably specific when it comes to providing marginal details, but they shroud the essentials in reticence and secrecy. Deeley, for example, recalls the behavior of the usherettes in the empty suburban cinema where he first spotted Kate during a screening of "Odd Man Out." He remembers what the weather was like, exactly where Kate sat and how he struck up a conversation.
As he reminisces, we think we're getting somewhere, that Pinter is pinning down at least a small corner of the truth. Later in the evening, however, Anna is complimenting Kate on her smile. "That's the same smile she smiled when I was walking down the street with her," she says, "after 'Odd Man Out.' "
Wait a minute. Did Kate see the film twice? Did she see it first with Deeley? Or with Anna? Why would she go back? Did she make love with Deeley afterwards, as he pretends? There's no knowing. "Old Times" is not a play about what actually happened in the distant past. It's a play in which the characters appropriate one another's memories, subvert them, deform them in an attempt to shape and control the present. "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened," says Anna, blithely. In short, in this sleek world, nothing is, but remembering makes it so.
Evasive as the text is, Arena's production, directed with minimalist aplomb by Garland Wright, is a miracle of precision. It is set in a white box, sparsely dotted with chrome and leather furniture (in the first act) and two movable twin beds (in the second), which, Deeley explains suggestively, "are susceptible to any amount of permutation."
We are in Deeley and Kate's country house by the sea, but it could be a clinic or a boxing ring -- arenas where similar if more overt forms of dissection and hostility also take place. Against so much flashbulb whiteness, the turn of a head or the purse of a mouth registers with considerable emotional force. A smile constitutes an uppercut and an unbroken gaze is the equivalent of a bloodletting.
Indeed, in one of the funniest passages, Anna and Deeley find themselves singing snatches of the songs that marked their youth -- "Lovely to Look At," "All the Things You Are," "Blue Moon." But soon it becomes apparent that more than nostalgia is at play. They are in fact dueling with one another -- dueling with song fragments -- and Kate, dreamy and seemingly oblivious, is the spoils of battle.
Like everything in this exquisite production, the scene is paradoxically limpid and dense, innocent and sexually provocative. The acting, direction and scenery are without clutter, spartan even. And the effect of such rigorous selectivity? We leave "Old Times" with a heightened sense of the ambivalence and complexity of human intercourse. Scratch the veneer of manners and breeding and you find what may be the most prurient play ever written, in which the characters never lay a hand on one another.
Tantalizingly simple on one hand. Simply tantalizing on the other.
Old Times, by Harold Pinter. Directed by Garland Wright. Sets, Douglas O. Stein; lighting, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman. With Stanley Anderson, Tana Hicken, Halo Wines. At Arena's Kreeger Theater through June 29.