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FUSION’s production of ‘Old Times’ is superb

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I’ve seen three or four productions of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times.”

I’ve read the play perhaps a dozen times.

I’ve perused countless books and essays on Pinter and was thrilled when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005. In short, Harold Pinter fascinates.

Yet “Old Times” is Pinter’s most enigmatic play, and I have never yet been satisfied with any production I’ve seen. I don’t know if a satisfying production is even possible, although I continue to hope so.

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In “Old Times,” truth is elusive and in fact impossible to discern. Memory distorts, invents, represses; it is entirely unreliable: to paraphrase the prophet, “It is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” That is what the play is ultimately saying, and in that sense “Old Times” is a quintessentially postmodern play.

“Old Times” is currently playing at Albuquerque’s most adventurous theater, FUSION. And although it is the best production of the play I’ve seen so far, it did not quite capture the intensity and power I believe is buried deep within this strange yet brilliant play.

Deeley and Kate are married and living in a remote country farmhouse in England. They are expecting a visit from Anna, an old friend of Kate’s whom she has not seen in 20 years. As the play unfolds, we become less and less certain regarding these relationships. Were Deeley and Anna lovers? For that matter, were Anna and Kate lovers? Was it some sort of ménage à trois? Could this be an elaborate sex ritual they are enacting, as in Pinter’s play “The Lover”?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but the key to the play lies in a struggle for dominance, the central theme in all of Pinter’s plays, however different they appear on the surface. In this case, the struggle is principally between Deeley and Anna for possession of the aloof and seemingly impenetrable Kate.

In Pinter’s plays, words are used as weapons to inflict pain or as shields to hide behind, and not primarily to communicate. He is notable for his pauses and silences – the famous “Pinter pause” – in which his characters vulnerabilities and weaknesses are finally exposed. In a dramatically successful production, they need to be emotionally filled by the actor; that is, when they work, they are “pregnant pauses.” They should be shattering and revealing.

The most vulnerable character in the play is Deeley, played by John San Nicolas. For the most part, Nicolas captures his character’s increasing insecurity, although his incremental unraveling might have been even more pronounced and devastating. Nicolas is strongest in his delivery of Pinter’s language and rhythms – no small achievement – and using a cockney or working-class dialect was an interesting choice.

Jacqueline Reid plays Deeley’s rival Anna with assurance, but the production’s success rests finally in raising the stakes in Deeley and Anna’s battle for possession of Kate.

The gem in this production is Celia Schaefer, whose Kate is positively riveting, especially in her final, shocking, and ultimately incomprehensible monologue.

The ending is silence and tableau. As usual, Pinter says most when he says least.

The production values are superb, especially the set and lighting design by Richard K. Hogle.

“Old Times” is playing at The Cell, 700 First NW through Feb. 12. Go to fusionnm.org or call 766-9412 to make reservations.

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