When memory goes missing

Memory is a strategic resource in the struggle for power,” wrote Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, adding, “Memory is haunted.” He quotes Jorge Luis Borges as writing that to remember is “a ghostly verb.”

This is the kind of memory that churns and drives, excites and confabulates the trio of characters in Harold Pinter’s play “Old Times,” which is the current Fusion production at the Cell Theater in Albuquerque.

Old Times,” is at once the most traditional and most radical of plays. The plot is as conventional as imaginable, replicated thousands of times in plays and novels and short stories over the centuries: A middle-aged couple is visited by a long-ago friend who turns everything upside down. But the manner of telling is stunningly unconventional—so unusual that some directors and reviewers concluded the whole story is merely a figment of one or another of the character’s imagination.

Celia Schaefer and John San Nicolas star in Fusion’s production of Old Times by Harold Pinter. Photo by Richard K. Hogle.

The elusive meaning of this two-act, 70-minute drama is, depending on one’s point of view, a challenge or an obstacle. It is either a reason to see something happening on stage that is fascinating and remarkable, or a reason to avoid theater that is puzzling and ultimately inconclusive.

The play’s meaning, or multiple meanings, or lack of meaning, is encapsulated in the long silence that concludes the play. It is a silence that is written into the script, according to director Gil Lazier, an experienced director who holds a PhD., has directed another Pinter play and taught Pinter in his college courses.

Lazier and the three able and experienced actors who perform this play (Jacqueline Reid, John San Nicolas and Celia Schaefer) struggled through the three weeks of rehearsal to interpret it, Lazier said in an interview. He feels they ultimately reached a consensus, if not on what the play does, at least on how it does it.

The ambiguity on this point is legendary. While rehearsing for a 1984 revival of the 1971 play in New York (its most recent New York revival was only two years ago), its star Anthony Hopkins asked Pinter what the ending of the play meant. Pinter replied, “I don’t know. Just do it.”

Jacqueline Reid stars in Fusion’s production of Old Times by Harold Pinter. Photo by Richard K. Hogle.

A few facts can be established. The play opens with a conversation between Kate (Schaefer) and her husband Deeley (Nicholas). In short order, Anna (Reid arrives). The two women were once roommates and close friends but have not seen each other for 20 years. If memories are accurate (and there is no reason to believe they are) Deeley also knew Anna and may have flirted with her and even had a brief affair with her.

For the next hour the three characters resurrect details of what happened or might have happened or didn’t happen a generation earlier. All of this memory and forgetting ricochets off the tensions and frustrations and perhaps betrayals of their current relationships.

The meaning of all this is so befogged that a number of directors and critics have concluded that nothing in the play actually happens. Perhaps it’s all a dream, or an interaction among ghosts, or mere musings in the mind of one of the characters. Perhaps some or all of the characters are actually dead. Perhaps….

Lazier, however, will have none of this speculation. “It would be unfair to the audience,” he said, to perform the play as if nothing actually happens. But what does happen is a matter for each person—whether in the audience or the cast—to conclude for himself.

During rehearsals, he added, they did not try to formulate a specific and fixed concept of what is happening on stage, merely, as Pinter himself advised, how to perform the play. Lazier said, “I’m not sure I know what the play means, but I’m pretty sure I know how it works.”

The Fusion performance stitches together a string of moments, like pearls on a string, which, Lazier said, is also the way Pinto created this and other plays. “We approached it like a piece of music,” Lazier said.

As in all his plays, Pinto wrote out detailed stage directions and included long, long, long silences—silences that are often more eloquent than the words that surround them. In listening to the silences, you hear the true voice of the playwright who, despite or because of his obfuscations, is ranked as one of the all-time greats of the theater. After all, the unreliability of memory and the uncertainty of language are factors that shape not only all stage creations but our very own lives.

The trio of actors in this play skillfully maintain almost glacial personas, in which gesture and facial expression are more articulate than words, and in which emotion exists primarily to be ocluded rather than overtly communicated. This quality reached its epitome when Deeley stared at an apparently very alive woman and intoned, “You are dead.”

Old Times” continues at the Cell Theater, 700 1st St. NW in Downtown Albuquerque, through Feb. 12. For information and reservations call 505-766-9412 or go to fusionnm.org.