In 'Old Times,' a typical Pinter play, the word's the thing, or is it?

January 07, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

Harold Pinter can make the ordinary world seem like the most extraordinary place. The mundane and the menacing turn out to be one and the same in his unsettling plays. Although his characters seem to indulge in idle chitchat, their superficially pleasant conversations conceal darker motives that the English playwright himself may not fully understand.

And just as characters' motives are suspect, language itself proves an unreliable thing. A word may have one meaning for you and another for me. Also, how that word is spoken obviously affects its meaning. Shifts in emphasis and ominous pauses can make a tremendous difference in what you take a word's meaning to be.

This is why a simple conversation between two characters over a cup of coffee so often comes across as a sophisticated battle to determine who controls the coffeepot etiquette. There are a number of such conversations in Pinter's 1971 play "Old Times," which the Maryland Stage Company, the resident professional theater company at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is venturing off campus to present in a strong production at Theatre Project.

The play's deceptively basic premise is that a filmmaker named Deeley (Tom Blair) and his wife, Kate (Cherie Weinert), are sitting in their English coastal house anticipating a visitor, Anna (Wendy Salkind), who shared a room with Kate in London 20 years before. The spirited Anna is now living along the volcanic coast of Sicily. As is so often the case with Pinter, this rather strange visitor will prove a totally disruptive intruder in a bourgeois home.

Because "Old Times" is a memory play in which all three characters recall their past associations, Pinter has a field day noting how unreliable our language of recall can be. As Anna observes: "There are things I remember which may never have happened." Most disturbing is that Deeley and Anna trade contrasting memories while Kate sits silently between them as if she's either contemplative or semi-comatose.

The three actors respond to their roles as if to the existential manner born, though Tom Blair is too blustery as the husband and needs to modulate his performance a bit. Director Xerxes Mehta emphasizes the cold distances between his players by placing them in Bauhaus-style seating that seems like the last word in sterility.

"Old Times"

When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through Jan. 23

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

Tickets: $14, with discounts available for seniors, students and artists

Call: (410) 752-8558


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