Thursday, October 15, 2015

Old Times, or, You Pinter--You Brought 'Er.

Roundabout/American Airlines Theatre
With Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best
Directed by Douglas Hodge
You shouldn’t have to think of synonyms
for “loud” and “fast” when you see Pinter plays.
You shouldn’t have to say: “Oh I see how
that line’s supposed to work.  Too bad it didn’t.”
You shouldn’t have to walk out thinking: “Wow—
that was a buck-a-minute show that made
Pinter look like he won the Nobel Prize
for The Emperor’s New Playwrighting Clothes.”
But I did, and it was. Thanks, Roundabout.
I just learned something that I didn’t know—
the bestest way to botch a Pinter play:
release the anger underneath the surface.
Do that, and all the venom disappears;
do that, and not a line will have a sting.
When you speak Pinter dialogue in anger,
then not a single play of his will work.
Especially when the director has
weird tonal background music playing, that
sounds like someone from Radiohead trying
to be Brian Eno, and score subsonics
beneath the lines to tell the audience
that there’s a big eruption brewing, when
the lines themselves should act like a slow fuse.

Having done that, why, don’t forget to put
your three characters on a set designed
to look like the Pole Star surrounded by
circular white star trails—a set tricked out
to say that there is something universal
in what these characters are going through.
But Pinter isn’t saying that; and this
play’s not constructed to support that weight.
It’s too precise to be some ur-encounter
between two women and a man, like say
Adam and Eve and Lilith in the Garden.
There’s nothing primal here except the need
to own a woman by owning her past,
and that’s not mythical—that’s therapy.
There are no gods here, except maybe for
Robert Newton’s painter in Odd Man Out.
So this production’s grand attempt at lifting
this play up to the Sophoclean heights
succeeds in being just another broad
stroke that smears all the subtlety away,
an act of dramaturgical hubris.
And then, if you’re directing this, make sure
you put the icing on the overcooked
cake by telling the actors they can floor it
when they sit in the verbal driver’s seat,
and the play will turn into serve and volley,
not spin and strategy—a power game
instead of sniper fire—where every line’s
a rocket with a payload, instead of
the polite casing for a dum-dum bullet
that does more damage when it hits its mark
than when it's shot.

                              Wait—sorry—wrong—in fact,
don’t even think of guns at all. Think knives.
Albee is bullets. Strindberg is dueling pistols.
Pinter is knives, not noise. Each biting line
is part of some death of a thousand cuts,
where you drop dead before you know you’re bleeding.
It’s a knife fight, where every stab and thrust
happens so fast you never see the blade—
you only see the slicing mark it leaves.
And when the verbal bombs are dropped, they’re tossed
like nonchalant grenades into the room,
exploding not with booms but with dead silence.
The only way to tell if they’ve gone off—
to know for sure that those lines are explosive—
is by their victims, not the sound they make.
Except in this production, where the booms
shatter the windowpanes.  

Speaking of which,
windows and doors exist in Pinter’s words
through which an actor can reveal the fire
that stokes her inner engine—but if she
opens these windows or walks through that door
and lets us see the furor underneath
the “I remember you dead” monologue
(for instance), then it shrinks in size and fails
to be more than melodramatic rage
when—if it was delivered with the calm
of a casual shiv between the ribs—
it should have—and it would have—pierced to the heart. 

Sadly, there’s no such piercing in this blunt
production, though it has its little moments
when, despite all the actors and director
have done to kick him to the Times Square curb,
Pinter appears onstage in all his dark
and quiet terror. It’s not like they’re bad,
the actors; Clive Owen is smug and sleazy,
Kelly Reilly is a hot mystery,
and, yes, Eve Best lives up to her last name.
It’s just that what they’re doing doesn’t serve
what should be served up: something that looks chilled
but really scorches.  

The rule is noise here,
and what that noise says through it all is this:  

“You want to make Pinter look like a hack?
Turn all the speakers up to ten, and make
each bomb go off as loud as dynamite.” 

“Want to make Pinter look shallow?  Then make
each subtle dig as deep as the Pacific,
and fill the stage with snarling cats and dogs
instead of men and women who will hide
their inside animals behind the veil
of civilized behavior, and not once—
not once demean the anger in their souls
by freeing it.” 

And yes, it’s possible
To do Old Times as one great big “Fuck you!”
But it was written to do that while saying
“Well, bless your heart.” Anything more than that
is less than Pinter—it’s just acting out,
not acting. It feels wrong when feelings get
exposed instead of covered up in chatter.
It reads as shallow when you play the deep.
It hangs there weightless when you give it speed.
Bring it to a fast boil, and it will steam
but never scald.  To me, Pinter’s all simmer.
You can’t allow what’s cooking to heat up
Enough to blow its top; you have to keep
It frothing, so it never comes to rest.
It is the covered pot that boils the best.


Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells


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