Old Times

defunkt theatre at the Back Door Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne, 993-9062, 8 pm Thurs-Sat, 4 pm Sundays, through June 19, $8-15, 1/2 price for people of color

Playwright Harold Pinter is known for stark, calculated dialogue that un-eases you to the edge of your psychic seat. One doesn't think of Pinter as a writer of musicals, and he's not, but Old Times finds music as its centerpiece. The slightly mocking romantic pop music of the '40s and '50s are the bittersweet reference point for the entire post-WWII generation. Pop music is the most effective form of nostalgia; a 78-rpm record player works like a time machine for the mind.

Director James Moore takes a mature risk in staging this intense piece. He has found a lynchpin muse in Ina Strauss, whose Anna proves that silence is menacing and golden. Visiting old friend Kate (Siouxsie Suarez ) and her husband Deeley (Rafael Untalan), Anna becomes the catalyst for a perspective-flawed trip into memory. The three talk over coffee and brandy, mostly about youthful bohemianism. Anna remembers living cheap and reading Yeats, and trades dusty old song lines with Deeley. During an interlude of pop standards Ms. Strauss sings "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." The night I attended, her voice cracked on the high note and my heart broke. It was so beautifully flawed, so Pinteresque that I had to wonder if she had cracked her voice on purpose.

The small ensemble plays coolly, their expressions as austere and striking as Pinter's dialogue and the bedroom stage set. Suarez tracks between blank naiveté and quiet cruelty, proving that it's hard to tell the difference between the serenity of happiness and the serenity of death. Untalan is convincing as the affable creep Deeley, the mind-fucking mood killer that no one invites to a party. He possesses the disarming sleaze of a psychology professor who talks his wife into threesomes. When memories are divided among these three, the past takes on twisted shapes and dark tones, the old songs go dissonant.

Old Times is an awkward delight, reviving the nostalgia for old wounds. You've got to submit yourself to Pinter, let the quietude hold back the flood of painful memories. He's the bard of cringe-inducing elegance, who unwraps bourgeois functionality and exposes domestic hell. TOUSSAINT PERRAULT

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