The wife takes the cigarette from her husband's lips before he can light it, lights it herself on her own cigarette and then passes it to the visitor to their country home, her London flat-mate from 20 years earlier — and, while this action does not actually ignite the three-on-a-match superstition, it does tip considerable erotic turbulence ahead in Old Times, which bowed Oct. 7 at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre.
The stage is economically set for triangular complications — two low-slung couches, separated by a throne-like armchair fit for the Man of the House. The couches are actually twin beds that have been known to come together, at will, into one big bed. The threesome flits from one to the other all evening, in a kind of mating dance.
Harold Pinter is settling in to unsettle the audience — which was what the Nobel Prize-winning playwright did for a living. Usually, it was the imminent threat of violence. Here, it's a sensual chess game, waged by the husband and the old friend over the favors of a woman they've both been intimate with. How intimate? Well... Luchino Visconti once directed a lesbian Old Times, but that approach really pissed off Pinter, who envisioned the work more of a power play than a gender scuffle.
"It's a play about sex, betrayal and the frailty of memory," according to director Douglas Hodge, who cast this revival for sexual pyrotechnics — and was rewarded by Roundabout with his first choices: Clive Owen and Kelly Reilly, a couple of British theatre stars who are belatedly getting around to the Main Stem, and Eve Best, who twice put her Best feet forward on Broadway, winning Tony nominations both times (for O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten in '07 and Pinter's The Homecoming in '08). Best could consider herself a little anointed for her Old Times role of the sexually disruptive "friend," having been hand-picked by Pinter himself. "I met him for lunch after I had done The Homecoming, and he said, 'Do you know my play Old Times? You should play Anna one day.' Seven years later, this offer came through. I had to do it."
Memory — or, more exactly, what this Best of friends remembers and what she embellishes — is the primary ammo here in this erotic warfare. "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened," her character airily declares — to which the husband says (and the audience likely thinks), "What?"
They smoke and they smolder for 70 coolly cryptic minutes. The smoldering was better for Best, who couldn't stand the smoking. "I gave it up seven years ago, and it was really hectic. They're herbal, so it's not nicotine. All three of us are ex-smokers. It was a challenge. We have to keep an eye on each other. No one's going to be taking it up again. It's kinda weird because people don't smoke, really, on stage anymore, but this is such a very specific person to play and there are such specific stage directions that they take a cigarette here and smoke there so we had to suck it up — literally."
Owen seemed to be wearing his relief like a flag, once the opening-night curtain had come down and he had officially become a Broadway actor. "No question about it," he agreed. "I was very excited and very nervous, too, but it was a very good night."
The actor, who turned 51 three days earlier, admitted he didn't have any particular expectations of playing the Main Stem, but it had always been on his bucket list. "I started in the theatre, so it has always been a dream of mine to come to Broadway and do a play. When Old Times came up, it reminded me, and I said yes. It's my first play in a long time" [14 years to be exact, since he did a London revival of Joe Egg].
"The language is what attracted me to Old Times in the first place. You read the play and you see how well put together it is. The amazing thing about Pinter is he's so economical, his choice of words so lean in the way he constructs sentences.
"I had a few theories about the play, but they didn't really stand up. You can build the blocks and say 'This is what it is,' but Pinter's much more free-form than that. We discovered that in rehearsal. You commit. You know what any particular area is, but in making a very straightforward linear narrative, it doesn't hold with this play, and I'm a logic-monster. To be able to work my way through something, I need to know all the building blocks and go, 'It has to be logical,' and this play isn't logical."
Broadway has been wooing Reilly for some time. Why Old Times? "It was time," she replied succinctly. "I hadn't done a play in eight years. I had the itch for about three years but couldn't find the right play. Before that, I was doing play after play after play in London, and I couldn't manage a great personal life and do a play. Now, I'm married and content so I thought it was time to see if I could get that balance back."
And it was nice to have another Broadway virgin on board, too. "Clive's just a beautiful man, seriously — such a generous actor. We were doing the best we can, trying to wrestle this play to the ground because it's such an elusive beast. The more you tackle it, the more it gets away from you. There were days where we were, like, 'What are we doing?' Then, there were days when the thrill couldn't be bigger. It's such an immense piece of genius. We spent four weeks in rehearsal, trying to come up with ideas, but the more we did that, the less it became important. Eventually, we went to our own quarters and figured out our own ideas. None of them was wrong."
Missing in action on opening night was their leader, director Hodge, who is also the Tony-winning (La Cage aux Folles) actor. Word was that he was pulled back to London for some additional shooting on his "Penny Dreadful" television series. He is due back Oct. 15-16 to play the modern major general in MasterVoices' The Pirates of Penzance at New York City Center.