Maybe Harold Pinter was yanking the actor’s chain when he told him to “just do it,” rather than fret about what Old Times meant. If the famously mysterious playwright did know, he wasn’t about to share the intelligence with some actor, even if that actor was Anthony Hopkins. This was in 1984 and Hopkins was starring in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the play, a three-hander about — well, about what we can only speculate. And speculate some more.
In a season of returns celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Roundabout has gone back again to this 1971 drama, and this time it’s Clive Owen (Croupier, Closer) in his Broadway debut, given the task of sorting things out, or not. In their sleek sterile home (set designer Christine Jones even plants an ice-like translucent slab in place of a window at the rear, just to drive the point home), Deeley (Owen) and his wife Kate (Kelly Reilly of True Detective) are awaiting the arrival of Kate’s old friend Anna (Eve Best, of Nurse Jackie). When, as young, insolvent singles in London two decades ago, they shared an apartment, Kate recalls, Anna would filch her underwear. Isn’t that a hoot?
When Kate arrives from Sicily, soignee and deceptively feline, they reminisce about the old days, but, like the Lerner and Loewe song “I Remember It Well” refracted through a sinister prism, the memories differ in creepily disconcerting ways. Kate plays the innocent, recalling Anna as the free spirit. Deeley remembers staring up the dress of a woman at a party, while Anna recalls being stared at, as she was wearing stolen underwear. Is Deeley lying about having never met Anna before this? Is Anna on a mission to upend this comfortable union? Who knows? Just do it.
Douglas Hodge, an actor (Cyrano De Bergerac, La Cage Aux Folles) and experienced Pinter hand, has a fine trio to work with. Owen is particularly strong as Deeley, his suavity just short of convincing: perfect. Best, a phenomenal stage actress (A Moon For The Misbegotten, Hedda Gabler) is cunning as Anna, and Reilly strikes exactly the right balance between unaffected blankness and someone who knows in her bones that she, ultimately, is the prize Deeley and Anna are battling over. I only wish Hodge hadn’t set the three so far back on the stage.
Hodge and company play the humor over the menace, which mostly works in this brief drama, presented without intermission. A sequence in which Anna and Deeley sing lines from the Great American Songbook seems purposely and nearly unbearably off-key; a back-and-forth about seeing the film Odd Man Out has the rhythmic flow of a well-told joke.
Detracting from the whole is that set, which is framed by an abstract swirl of circles, and some introductory music by Thom Yorke that nearly had me bolting from the theater before the proceedings got under way. Once they did however, I was hooked. I only wish I could figure out who was reeling me in.