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June 1, 2011

A REVIEW Silences and Sexuality

Roy Meachum

Washington Shakespeare Theatre is offering a seldom glimpse into the world according to London’s Harold Pinter. Artistic Director Michael Kahn has mounted a generally admirable, “Old Times.” It’s been almost 40 years since I first reviewed the play.


Mr. Pinter burst out on the American stage during the social and sexual revolution that some say was fostered, in this country, by Jack Kennedy. London’s Carnaby Street provided the rebellion’s uniforms. The birth control pill was universal. Tennessee Williams was the looming dramatic presence, although the late 1960s the footlights were dominated by serious Edward Albee and comedic Neil Simon.


Entering into that company, Harold Pinter presented yet more revolution. Sitting down in 7th Street’s Lansburgh Theatre, I was, of course, familiar with the pauses he wrote into his manuscripts. Watching actors counting in their heads was part of the pleasure he donated; sometimes the continuity would continue after the pauses and as frequently shoot off in a completely different direction. Audiences waited and anticipated, no matter the outcome.


On his own in London’s West End, Mr. Pinter concocted his version of the topical “stage speak.” His characters seldom talked directly to each other: inferring and implying instead. They mostly regarded their fellow players in a third-person sense. Above all, emotion was never paraded out. What made the plays so fascinating was the subdued but nevertheless overwhelming sexuality. Especially in that revolutionary age, the playwright’s tightly controlled manifestations of raunchiness found echoes in audiences’ hearts, even with those who didn’t grasp what was going on.


In the Shakespeare Theater Company production, Director Kahn chose well the ladies who fill Walt Spangler’s elegantly white set that caused me to take a breath when I first saw it. Holly Twyford makes the part of Anna the part-time dominatrix totally her own. No wonder the actress is a major force in Washington productions, nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for numerous roles and winning more than several times. Anna establishes the “Old Times” that are the bases for the show.


“Mixing memory and desire,” according to T. S. Eliot’s phrase, Ms. Twyford is strongly aided and abetted by Tracy Lynn Middendorf who spent the entire time on stage exhibiting the qualities that make her the object of the other two characters’ sexually fantasy. Under Mr. Kahn’s strong direction, Ms. Middendorf does not simply move but slinks, and sensuously.


If maybe only for my matinee performance, Steven Culp escaped from Mr. Pinter’s intention by shouting outbursts more than several times; he does very well in reinforcing how an intemperate man remembers looking up Anna’s skirt, in a bar. But, in general, Mr. Culp “mouths the lines” rather than thinking them through.


As I implied at the start, Mr. Pinter’s technique and his “Old Times” do not deliver the impact they did 40 years ago. I must pronounce myself very grateful to Michael Kahn for the work I saw in my relative youth, and first years as a critic. For those who’ve never seen the play or enjoy earlier memories, readers should rush down to the Lansburgh Theatre.


Washington Shakespeare Theatre says goodbye to Harold Pinter’s magnificent pauses and covert sexuality the night before the 4th of July bows in with firecrackers that light up the skies beside the Potomac.



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