Reversal of Feeling

“There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened,” remarks one of the characters in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” which Actors Collective is presenting in a taut production smartly directed by Jeffrey T. Heyer at the Carl Cherry Center, in Carmel.  “There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.”

This challenging and richly ambiguous play is about the jagged uncertainties of love and memory.  Deeley (Greg Falge) and Kate (Julie Hughett) are a married couple living in the English countryside, in a house near the sea.  They are visited by Anna (Nina Capriola), an old friend Kate hasn’t seen in twenty years.  As the visit unfolds, small-talk niceties and recollections soon give way to more loaded suggestions of past entanglements.  Deeley tells the story about how he met Kate at an out-of-the-way movie theatre in London, but was Kate alone when he met her?  More than one scenario is eventually raised.  Other remembered encounters begin to fill in the story, but shadows of conflict and confusion remain.  The stakes of this uncertainty are heightened considerably as the play nears its spine-tingling conclusion, when dark mysteries in Kate and Anna and Deeley’s shared past are explored.

Explored, but not solved.  “Old Times” is not one of those “trick plays” in which there is a sudden reversal that changes everything you thought you understood, clearing the way for a tidy dénouement.  Instead, Pinter’s extraordinary cut-glass prose designs a kind of textual trompe-l’oeil, in which distinctions between surface and depth, past and present, self and other, cannot be trusted.  “You can’t say where it begins or ends,” Kate says of the sea, but she might be talking of the world of the play.  This may unsettle some viewers.  I found it thrilling.

Because of its surreal aspects, its emphasis on language and repetition, and its structural complexity, “Old Times” runs the risk of being chilly and remote.  Lives, memories, and identities are dissected with an almost clinical scrutiny.  (The production’s one distracting off-note was Anna’s costume, which to my eyes resembled a doctor or lab researcher’s coat.  Perhaps this effect was intended.)  Fortunately, the actors breathe warmth and feeling into Pinter’s austere script.  Capriola’s Anna is vibrant and alert, with a store of rivalrous emotion lying under a mask of friendly bonhomie.  When she and Deeley trades lyrics from old tunes by Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers and Hart, her eyes shift from playful to cutting in a flash.

As Deeley, Falge portrays an elegant Englishman bound to certain traditions and expectations.  One of his most significant displays of anger is toward an imagined class of wealthy foreigners, “a slim-bellied Cote D’Azur thing we know absolutely nothing about, a lobster and lobster sauce ideology we know fuck all about.”  Yet despite his burst of anger this, too, is a form of protection—the mask of class rage.  Deeley’s character is pure concealment, until at the end, when it isn’t.  The effect is powerfully moving.

Kate is a fantastic role for Hughett, a sensitive, expressive actress.  Kate is a dreamy, enigmatic woman who loves softness, who deplores edges and “harsh lines.”  There are moments when Anna and Deeley speak of her in the third person, as if she weren’t there.  Yet it is Kate whose actions and stories form the core of the play’s mystery.  And it is the dreamy Kate who interrupts her husband’s tirade against the “beautiful Mediterranean people” with the swiftly slicing “If you don’t like it go.”

All three characters undergo reversals of feeling as the points on this three-cornered map of desire and betrayal shift and unsettle whatever sense of reality has just been established.  “Old Times” is a Rubik’s Cube of a play: you can keep twisting and turning and still never get all the parts to match up.  Though Pinter denies us the satisfaction of narrative closure, isn’t his open-ended depiction of human emotion more ultimately truthful than case closed or happily ever after?

“Old Times,” through Saturday, March 3, at the Carl Cherry Center, 4th and Guadaloupe, in Carmel.  (831) 595-7053.