Masterful revival of `Old Times,' Pinter's thriller of the heart

No one has ever accused Harold Pinter of being merry. But in the production of his play ``Old Times'' at Arena Stage, there is plenty of laughter (some of it nervous) to make it a delightful evening. As delightful an evening, that is, as you can have at a play that is like a great glass triangle, dangerously sharp on each side.

The triangle consists of three characters and their geometric relationships: a husband, Deeley (Stanley Anderson), his wife, Kate (Tana Hicken), and Kate's former roommate, Anna (Halo Wines).

Anna is the catalyst of the drama, as her arrival precipitates an evening of reminiscing about old times and eventually some disastrous scenes that may or may not have been shared by Kate and Anna; Deeley and Kate; even Anna and Deeley.

As Anna murmers, ``There are things one remembers although they never happened.''

Harold Pinter writes thrillers, but they are thrillers of the heart, of the emotions, of the memories of people who are locked together inextricably and usually unhappily.

So ``Old Times'' is mysterious right up until the end, when the violent jealousy that has pitted them all against one another gives way to the startling finish, when Kate's madness is revealed.

But along the way, particularly in Act I, there are some terribly funny and endearing scenes of the sort that take place in real life when people get together to trade memories of the good old days.

In one of the best, Deeley and Anna do a wonderful spoof of romantic lyrics, a bittersweet marmalade medley of nostalgic love songs like ``Blue Moon,'' ``Lovely to Look At,'' ``I Get a Kick Out of You,'' and ``These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You).'' Kate, listening, looks like Queen Victoria about to utter the famous ``we are not amused'' line.

Of course, Pinter is a consummate writer, and the success of the play rests on his brilliant script. It includes such lines as Kate's:

``The only nice thing about a big city is that when it rains, it blurs everything.''

But the production itself is also highly polished, superbly acted and directed.

With only three actors, ``Old Times'' is like chamber music for Arena's Kreeger Theater.

Each of the instruments is at perfect Pinter pitch: Mr. Anderson as the witty, strutting husband; Ms. Wines as the best friend who taunts him with the past, her smile dripping honey; and Ms. Hicken as the child-wife, distant and indolent as a cat while the battle rages around her.

The sets by Douglas Stein are as spare as Pinter's dialogue and highly effective. Both acts are set in a contemporary English cottage by the sea, the interior walls gray as rain.

The furniture is all black leather and chrome (for Act I, the living room) or white and chrome (for Act II, the bedroom).

Lighting designer Nancy Schertler adds a subtle dimension with light from the sea through an offstage window.

Garland Wright has directed ``Old Times'' with wit and steel. He draws expertly from the play its amusing moments but never veers from the underlying and stark triple tragedy that is the foundation of ``Old Times.''

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