Element Theatre

at Cafe Voltaire

Nowhere is silence as intriguing and powerful as it is in the works of Harold Pinter. In his Old Times, which premiered in London in 1971, the silence of his heroine Kate whets the appetite of the imagination. “Pauses” and “long pauses” characteristically fill the pages of Pinter’s scripts. But in Old Times the enigmatic seductiveness of silence is embodied in Kate. She’s a virtual tabula rasa, revealing only minimal information about herself, bit by tantalizing bit. And neither her companions nor the audience can resist filling in the blanks.

Old Times is a strange sort of play that mixes realistic drama with essentially absurd elements. The plot’s basic premise is normal enough: Kate and her husband Deeley are visited by Anna, Kate’s sole friend, whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years. As the play opens Deeley is searching for some clue from Kate about the kind of friendship she had with Anna. Kate is calmly evasive. “Can’t you remember what you felt?” Deeley asks her. “It is a very long time,” Kate answers. “But you remember her,” Deeley insists. “She remembers you. Or why would she be coming here tonight?” Kate responds, “I suppose because she remembers me.”

When Anna enters and begins chattering nostalgically about the time the two spent together in London, Kate does nothing to confirm or deny Anna’s memories. She simply sits on the couch, silently listening as Deeley and Anna compete in relating their memories of her. But ironically the more they remember about Kate, the less they seem to actually know her. By the end of act one it seems absurd that Kate’s husband and her only friend should know so little about her. And like Deeley and Anna, the audience is left with the burning desire to find out what kind of person Kate actually is.

Pinter keeps us wondering even after the curtain goes down. The thrill is in the way Deeley and Anna compete for Kate’s verification of their own memories, and in the long, silent moments and the odd humor that grows out of them. Director Dan Torbica gives us a very precise, careful production of this essentially absurd play. Every beat has been counted, every British consonant perfected by his actors. The result is a production that captures the beautiful strangeness of Pinter’s poetry but falls short of making that poetry sing.

Jim Donovan as Deeley comes closest to bringing out the absurd humor that makes Old Times such an excellent script. One of the most entertaining scenes is his conversation with Anna while Kate is out of the room. He recalls meeting Anna in a bar, taking her to a party, and looking up her skirt as she sat on a couch across from him. Gail Richman as Anna rises to the occasion, bringing out some of the odd lust and desire that lurk just below the surface of the script.

Everything Deeley and Anna do is driven by an illogical obsession: uncovering the burning mystery of Kate and of their own pasts. The role of Kate can’t be an easy one to play, but she’d be a fascinating character to delve into, trying to discover the reason she remains so silent. Wendy Rohm gives a more than adequate performance: she’s believable, interesting, and enigmatic. But like the others, Rohm is a bit too careful with her character. Something–the fuel of obsession–seems missing.

This production is a very good one, just a step away from being excellent. Hopefully, with time, Torbica’s skilled cast will feel comfortable enough to take the risks that will allow this fascinating script to really shine.