Remembering Old Times: Pinter in LA

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There are a number of events in Los Angeles theater history I wished I’d been around to see. Near the top of that list has to be the 1985 production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, which enjoyed a month-long run at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood.

The reason: Harold Pinter himself played the role of Deeley. It was Pinter’s only performance on stage in Southern California. Sadly, I saw Pinter only once on stage — in 2001 he performed for four nights in New York as the brutal interrogator Nicholas in his play One for the Road — and he was mesmerizing. As Charles Spencer wrote in the London Telegraph, regarding this performance, “After seeing him…I'm convinced that, if he hadn't become a great writer, he would now be almost as famous as an actor.”

Pinter’s death two weeks ago has brought about many tributes to the playwright’s work as a dramatist. Indeed, Pinter’s plays are worth celebrating, but thankfully they will be with us for years if not centuries to come. Death will not silence Harold Pinter the playwright, but death will mean that his other work in the theater will be no more: his acting (which as most obituaries were right to highlight, was where is life in the theater began) and his directing — which has received less attention in memorials.

A Pinter-directed production never made it here to Southern California — and that’s a shame. In London four years ago I was lucky to catch a performance of the last play Pinter directed. It was called Old Masters and was an utterly old-fashioned play — very talky — nothing like his own more abstract work. Old Masters is about a flamboyant art dealer and a cranky and art historian. It’s the type of vaguely highbrow play that might easily fill out a season at Lincoln Center or the Mark Taper Forum. Pinter’s attraction to the material was likely because it was written by Simon Gray, the British playwright who wrote Butley, which Pinter directed with great success back in 1971. Whatever Pinter’s reasons though, he somehow made this conventional play memorable; and he did it by letting the actor’s take their time. Pinter was without a doubt a master of pause and silence in his own work, but seeing him direct another (less innovative) playwright’s work was also fascinating. Had he not been too busy writing remarkable plays, I would argue, he could have brightened theaters by making the work of hundreds of other playwrights look better courtesy of his directorial hand.

The other Pinter-directed production I saw was Pinter's final full-length play, The Celebration. This 1999 work contains all the signature Pinter themes, the appearance of normalcy, an unspoken sense of dread and a wicked sense of humor. The entire play takes place in the dining room — just two tables really — of a posh restaurant, and yet Pinter the director made this environment (despite the two celebrations going on) entirely haunting. His Celebration is to prix-fix dinners what Jaws was to swimming off the coast of Nantucket.

I mention The Celebration, because ten years after its premiere, it is one of the few Pinter plays that has never been seen here in Los Angeles. This is not to say that his work is as a whole has been under-represented — South Coast Rep has staged many of his plays and about seven years ago there were three major Pinter plays running at the same time here in Southern California.

But since winning the Noble Prize for Literature back in 2005, there has not been a rush to stage Pinter's work here in LA. The ongoing Pinter project at The Lost Studio has continued — and reportedly will continue — but other theaters should join in. Someone needs to stage The Celebration – and perhaps mount a fully fledged Pinter festival! And if anyone’s interested, there's a perfect place to stage it: The Henry Fonda Theater where the man himself walked the boards 25 years ago.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image of Harold Pinter (2004) by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images