Much has been written about the enigmatic, vexing work of British playwright, screenwriter, director, and Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, who died in 2008 at the age of 78. He began his career on the 1950s London stage, writing controversial “comedies of menace” like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker that were heavily influenced by the absurdist sensibilities of Beckett and Ionesco. Later on his so-called “memory plays” retained their elliptical, puzzle-like qualities while becoming more psychologically naturalistic. (Pinter’s most famous play, 1978’s Betrayal, is the epitome of this.)
By the end of his much-celebrated career in the ’00s, he was writing rather strident political screeds against authoritarianism and imperialism that, while they came from an inspiring concern for universal human rights, proved a bit of a slog for audiences and critics.
But Pinter at his best is always about two things: the unreliable or even aggressively deceptive nature of memory and the idea that even the simplest, most benign exchanges between people have the potential to turn into zero-sum power games. This is what makes his 1971 script Old Times such a giddy romp for Pinter fans.
The three-character, real-time play concerns a married couple in their 40s entertaining the wife’s female friend from her college days. Not a lot happens on the surface, but simultaneously the whole reality of these people’s lives is upturned. The show enjoyed a lavishly praised London stage revival in 2013 starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Rufus Sewell. Now Drag Strip Courage, a tiny Fort Worth troupe specializing in daring modern works, will open a staging next week at Arts Fifth Avenue. Drag Strip founder Seth Johnston, a Pinter fan since he saw director William Friedkin’s obscure 1968 film version of The Birthday Party in high school, helms the production and co-stars.
“Old Times has been my favorite Pinter play since college,” he said. “It’s a good example of the openness in his work, how he layers his plays with little clues and hints but leaves it mostly to the audience to figure out for themselves. It’s also a great play to re-read at different points in your life. When I first read it in college, I thought it was just about this sort of lurid, violent seduction. But reading it now [as a middle-aged man] I see much more that I was blind to when I was younger.”
The source of tension in Old Times is the fact that the wife (played in the Drag Strip production by Laura Lutz Jones), the husband (Johnston), and the wife’s old friend (Mary Jane Greer) cannot reconcile their memory fragments –– some similar, others strikingly different –– of the wife’s college years. Was she a “party girl”? Did she take special delight in breaking men’s hearts? And how, exactly, did the husband come to know the wife’s best friend, or did they ever meet at all? If this sounds spectacularly un-dramatic, then that’s why a strong production of a great Pinter play feels like a small miracle: With the right chemistry among director and actors, that perverse “Pinteresque” undertow of threat and desperation becomes an active presence in the theater. Suddenly the performers are locked in a vaguely primordial contest for some larger prize or truth that eerily eludes everyone even as it informs their non-sequitur dialogue.
Johnston recalled how he used to laugh at theater people who’d say pretentious things about Pinter like, “It’s what the characters don’t say that counts the most.” Then he started directing the playwright himself and discovered that, yep, it’s all about the playwright’s sinister omissions.
“Old Times is written like a pyramid, where each character is a point but doesn’t know exactly how he or she is connected to the other points in the show,” Johnston said. “Directors in the past have made concrete decisions about the characters’ stories and then directed the play from those assumptions.” (For the 2013 London revival, for instance, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams alternated the roles of the wife and the friend in different performances throughout the run, suggesting that both characters are, in fact, the same woman.)
For his part, Johnston said he encouraged his co-stars to create fairly detailed backstories for their roles –– a theatrical tool that’s almost mandatory to perform Pinter successfully –– but not to tell him about these inventions. In turn, he, as a director, has refused to take any definitive stands on the truth or falsehood of the memories in Old Times. He hopes that will make a richer, more unpredictable evening for ticketbuyers.
“So far, every night [in rehearsal] has been a different show,” he said proudly. “We have the same bits of stage business going on –– ‘he stands up, pours a drink, and hands it to her’ –– but sometimes it’s a happy show. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it’s sexy. Even the actors don’t know how it will go.”
July 11-20 at Arts Fifth Avenue, 1628 E 5th Av, FW. $15. 817-923-9500.