The audience was perplexed by ``Old Times.'' Drawn by the presence of Liv Ullmann and the playwright Harold Pinter to the production at the new Henry Fonda Theatre, they were introduced to the playwright's world of Pinterian pauses and tangled relationships. The laughter was tentative, and in the end they jammed the lobby, searching a posted review for signs of illumination.
Pinter's work is often like that. ``Old Times'' was an evening of impeccable acting, poignantly succinct writing, and superb theater -- Pinter's usual generous mix of the humorous and the serious. But it was also an evening of confusion and ambiguity, of memories remembered and replayed. In this production particularly, one walked out of the theater quoting hilarious one-liners while simultaneously feeling puzzled.
As directed by David Jones, ``Old Times'' appears simple at first. It opens on a starkly lit set, with three figures in black and white, totally still, and only the sound of the ocean providing movement. Then, the sparse dialogue -- first only single words, then phrases -- sets the stage for our confusion until we become aware that a husband and wife are describing the woman who stands center stage in a black dress, her back turned to us. Gradually we gather that she is a friend from the pas t, visiting the couple in their country home.
Just what her relationship to each was -- and is -- becomes shadowed with overtones and intimations of stories repeated from the past and relived in the present. The confusion results from the husband's jealousy of his wife's past relationship with this flamboyant, talkative visitor, Anna (Miss Ullmann), and the dialogue the two of them have amidst the wife's silence, almost as if comparing notes about her.
Occasionally the wife (Nicola Pagett) and her friend from single life in London begin a conversation from the old times, with husband Deeley (Harold Pinter) listening, sometimes with pain, sometimes amusement. Act II continues the ruse with identities as the husband, left alone with Anna while his wife takes a bath (``sud by sud''), relates a story of meeting Anna once before.
Like the unfolding of a mystery, mixed identities lead to a denouement as the three characters reenact a story told from the past -- except that in Pinter's play, there is no resolution and we are left seduced by the unknown.
One of the best surprises in this unusually casted production was Miss Pagett, (Elizabeth Bellamy in Masterpiece Theatre's ``Upstairs, Downstairs''), whose perfectly porcelain face revealed not her emotions or attitudes until they came spilling out in a tremendous monologue near the play's end. While Pinter and Ullmann were the drawing cards, Pagett -- both in character and acting -- stole the attention.
Miss Ullmann was a veritable torrent of verbiage and enthusiasm toward the mostly unresponsive friend from her past and her curious, subtly belligerent husband. She charged her role with a lush physicality that contrasted well with Pagett's tightness. Ullmann and Pinter generated an electricity that was riveting.
For his part, Pinter proved to be an exceptional actor with a range of emotional aptitude from his drunken attacks to hinted seduction to his prolonged sobbing which ended the play. Pinter as protagonist was a strong anchor between the two women. Possibly due to the playwright's presence, the play's witticisms appear far funnier than usual.
Although Ullmann and Pagett appeared together in the play's London run, Pinter only appeared in St. Louis and Los Angeles.
After completing prior commitments, the cast hopes to reassemble this summer to play a few more cities, including San Francisco, Toronto, and New York. The L.A. run closes Nov. 24.