Deception and its first cousin, infidelity, are old friends of Harold Pinter. As revealed in plays such as his celebrated "Betrayal," few dramatists have shown themselves more adept at baring the teeth of carnivorous drama in the stories of sex and lies.
Other examples of this affinity are offered in Shakespeare Theatre Company's double bill of Pinter one-acts, the dazzlingly witty "The Lover" and the more ordinary "The Collection." These plays from the early 1960s have been paired by theater companies before, and here in the Lansburgh Theatre, under the direction of Artistic Director Michael Kahn, four adroit actors reveal aspects of Pinter's craftiness at turning the 50 shades of gray of romantic secrets into theatrical guessing games of varying levels of juiciness.
The opener, "The Lover," from 1962, is the shorter and more potent of the two, as it draws us fleetly and delightfully into the elaborate charades of a white-collar British couple who seem to be in constant need of mutual reassurance, or more spice in the bedroom, or both. Impeccably manicured housewife Sarah (Lisa Dwan), in the short and curvy costumes of master designer Jane Greenwood, sends button-down husband Richard (Patrick Kennedy) off to work with chaste kisses and reminders that her lover will be arriving in a few hours, for a matinee of carnal engagement.
"Have a pleasant afternoon," are Richard's affable parting words.
Is this the most civilized marriage on Earth? Well, no, not really. But it is possibly the one most reliant on ambiguous plot twists. That only two actors appear (with the murky, blink-of-an-eye intrusion by a third) gives you some inkling of the cheekiness of this vehicle, one in which the question of who's in the driver's seat is a tantalizing unsolved mystery. With Kahn's firm hand to help, Pinter is sending up that eternal impression of British primness and reserve — as well as the country's reputation for great acting — by suggesting that the kinky role-playing in an English household can be of the most polished variety.
Kennedy and Dwan are beautifully matched: They can turn the steam on and off at will. Dwan in form-fitting black lace caresses herself in Marilyn Monroe fashion, as a nostril-flaring Kennedy towers over her, like a romance-novel hero in unassuming business attire. Are Richard and Sarah happy together? Or miserable? Or is each turned on only when the other is turned off? The actors lead us convincingly to one conclusion and then to the opposite. And so it goes. They're like the love-cloaked-in-hate birds of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" — only even more confoundingly flighty.
The second feature on the evening's bill, "The Collection," is a slightly earlier work (it premiered in 1961) and while sufficiently Pinteresque in the variety of curveballs it pitches, it hasn't aged quite as well. The bed-hopping game in this case has four players, who include Harry (Jack Koenig), a well-to-do bachelor, and his live-in "friend" Bill (Patrick Ball). A stranger (Kennedy's James) comes to their door, convinced that dress-designer Bill had a fling with his wife, Dwan's fellow designer, Stella. James is seeking — what? Revenge? A confession of guilt? His own special time with Bill?
After "The Lover," the plotting of "The Collection," alternating between the mechanics of a comedy and a thriller, seems less enjoyably laden with danger. And although Ball in particular does a splendid job of portraying a gay character in a time when homosexuality on a stage still tended to be revealed in coded conversation, the play's undercurrent of sexual intrigue never becomes electric. (For a playwright renowned for economy of language, Pinter in this instance feels a bit wordy!)
Kahn has proved his mettle with Pinter before in the Lansburgh, with a crackling 2011 revival of "Old Times." The softer one-two punch of "The Lover" and "The Collection" doesn't offer him a dramatist operating at the same optimal fighting weight. Instead, it's an evening during which the choicest jabs and uppercuts land in the early rounds.
The Lover and The Collection, by Harold Pinter. Directed by Michael Kahn. Set, Debra Booth; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; sound, Veronica J. Lancaster; voice and dialect coach, Lisa Beley; production stage manager, Joseph Smelser. About two hours 15 minutes. $59-$118. Through Oct. 29 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.