This 1971 drama — some might call it a comedy, but don't let them get away with that — is perfectly suited to an academic theater festival because it cries out for intense intellectual treatises on the topic of what the heck it's really about. The answer, of course, is that it's about anything you want it to be because it's about the fallibility of memory. Pinter certainly isn't providing an answer. The man wasn't a Nobel laureate for nothing.
Pinter loves subverting his audience's need to believe that there's some kernel of truth in the story he's telling — that under all the mysteries and enigmas and theatrical game playing there's really a story being told. But that's probably not the case. He's just messing with us. That's what Pinter does.
Being messed with makes some people happy because they're up for the challenge. It irritates others to the point of wanting to throw things at the stage. But that's only if the production is a good one.
Director Jeffrey Bihr creates a production that nearly inspires throwing things. From the start of his 80-minute production, an air of tension electrifies the air of the Pigott Theater on the Stanford campus, but that tension dissipates.
Erik Flatmo's set is an almost childlike outline of a seaside cottage somewhere in England. Husband and wife Deeley (Rush Rehm) and Kate (Cristina Anselmo and Courtney Walsh, alternating in the role) are dressed in blue and beige, so they match both the wallpaper and the furniture. Their lives, we can assume, are comfortable but bland.
They're awaiting the arrival of Anna, Kate's one good friend whom she hasn't seen in 20 years. Anna (Anselmo and Walsh alternating) is flying in from her villa in Sicily. The minute we see her lurking outside the house, peering in the windows, we know she's there to upset the balance, if only because the bold print of her dress matches neither the wallpaper nor the furniture (costumes are by Connie Stayer).
The visit starts pleasantly enough, but soon Anna and Deeley are waging a seemingly civilized but actually brutal war over the mostly silent Kate. Bihr's production skimps on the erotic tension, but we get the drift. Anna and Kate, back in their wild days as young secretaries in London, may have been lovers or they may have been man-hungry.
In the play's most vivacious scene, Anna and Deeley play a game of one-upsmanship trying to impress Kate with snippets of old songs. Kate can barely seem to be bothered, which only makes the game players press on with more vehemence. Then Pinter's play, and this production, veers off the tracks.
Director Bihr pulls a fast one in the second half as a way to complicate an already complicated narrative: Actresses Anselmo and Walsh switch roles just before the second act begins. (They also switch roles every night, so that Anselmo starts the play as Kate at one performance, and as Anna at another.) These casting moves make about as much sense as anything Pinter has to say. Memory is knotty and fragmented and, as one of the characters says: "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place."
The way Deeley and Kate met — at a screening of "Odd Man Out" — may have never happened. Kate may have been more sexually active than Deeley knew. Anna and Deeley may have played sexual games in a pub before Kate ever entered the picture. And Kate's underwear holds great metaphorical significance. Don't even ask.
What starts out tense and mysterious becomes tedious and dramatically inert. How can there be tension when we can't even hold on to the threads of the story as it keeps changing depending on who's doing the remembering? Then Pinter really goes off the deep end and gives us the whiff of death to confuse the proceedings even further.
Perhaps the two women are aspects of the same person, and the dominant personality vanquished the weaker. Perhaps someone actually died. Perhaps all of this is happening in the twisted mind of one of the characters. And can someone please explain the door in the floor?
Perhaps "Old Times" could be chilling or disturbing, but in this version, it's mainly interesting until it isn't. Then frustration and, to be perfectly honest, boredom, set in. It's not that the actors are flailing — on the contrary, they're attacking this material with gusto, and their British accents are solid — it's just that they're battling the playwright to find something to play.
A note in the program encourages audience members to come back for a second viewing of "Old Times." You get a $10 discount and see the actresses switch roles again.
There are some decent laughs in "Old Times," as when Anna says, "You have a lovely casserole ... lovely wife. Sorry." And the prominent use of songs in the sound design — "Laura" with its half-remembered face in the "misty moonlight" and "Where or When" with its "some things that happened for the first time seem to be happening again" — is wonderfully evocative. But those two wistfully beautiful songs are so much more satisfying than this play it almost seems insulting to include them.
What: "Old Times" by Harold Pinter, presented by Stanford Summer Theater
Where: Pigott Theater, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford University
When: Through July 24, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. shows Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $15-$25.
Info: Go to summertheater.stanford.edu or call 650-725-5838.