Six seasons ago, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s out artistic director made a great success with Harold Pinter’s 1971 mesmeric exploration of memory “Old Times.” Now he’s returned to Pinter with a double bill of one acts from earlier in the British playwright’s career, “The Lover” and “The Collection.”
Penned in the early 1960s originally for television broadcast, the plays are poised on the precipice of the swinging ’60s. It’s not about free sex, but rather a darkly funny examination of characters (gay and straight) who are involved in games of one-upmanship and dominance, and constructing their own truths.
“The Lover” is about Sarah (a perfectly pressed Lisa Dwan) and Richard (the excellent Patrick Kennedy), a young married couple living in a London suburb who initially seem totally average, humdrum and a bit stuffy. But then, just before Richard heads off to the office, he calmly asks Sarah if she will be seeing her lover later in the day.
She replies affirmatively. Soon it becomes clear that the husband is in fact the lover and the couple are engaged in some serious ongoing role playing. In the afternoon, Richard — in the guise of a rumpled Beatnik — returns home for a heated tryst. Awaiting his arrival, Sarah doffs her sensible day frock and slips into an alluring lace cocktail dress. But all is not of fun and games and their meetings become increasingly spiteful. Where this will lead is unclear as are their true feelings.
“The Collection,” the second of the night’s offerings, involves couples Stella and James (again Dwan and Kennedy) who have been married for two years; and prickly, middle-aged Harry (terrific out actor Jack Koenig) and his seductive, much younger boyfriend, Bill (a perfectly cast Patrick Ball). None of the four seem happy in their relationships.
Convinced that Stella and Bill had a one-night stand while away on business in Leeds, James decides to confront the competition: “You’re not a film star, but you’re quite tolerable looking, I suppose,” says James to Bill who seems gay but is presumably bisexual. Their meeting, the first of several, is a mix of menace and attraction.
Meanwhile Harry pays a fact-finding visit to Stella. What’s actually happened between Stella and Bill is confirmed and denied. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what is true or isn’t.
At an about an hour each and separated by an intermission, the pieces are finely acted and expertly rendered. Kahn has assembled a talented quartet of actors (all except Koenig new to STC) who ably handle the rhythm and silences of Pinter’s particular language. With well-timed Pinter pauses, they impart more meaning into the work than what the spoken words alone convey.
The all-woman design team is stellar. Jane Greenwood’s costumes expand on the characters’ personalities, wants and stations. Bill’s memorably form-fitting plaid trousers and Harry’s black tie and smoking robe are all spot on. Debra Booth’s remarkably serviceable set of three households impeccably reflects its respective inhabitants’ aspirations to bourgeois comfort, tidiness or cool. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting technically clever shifts the actions from home to home while imbuing the scene with an element of mystery and suspicion.
For fans of Pinter’s unreal realism, Shakespeare’s latest is satisfyingly good. For those new to his work, it’s the perfect introduction.