Bright flashes of light and discomforting noises make for a jarring start to Harold Pinter’s 1971 “Old Times," which is now enjoying a carefully cultivated revival at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.
The sensory-assault -- truly, some may find the play’s first half-minute or so hard on the eyes and ears -- announces we’re back in Pinter territory: abstract, and make-of-it whatever we will.
Douglas Hodge, the “La Cage” Tony-winner who has long been a student of the late Nobel Prize-winning playwright, here makes his debut directing a formidable trio: Academy Award-nominee Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best.
We open in the spare country apartment belonging to Deeley (Owen) and Kate (Reilly, of “True Detective”), where an armchair and modern sofas want to anchor us on solid ground, though an enormous slab of what looks like ice -- it will later pass for a shower stall -- says otherwise. Also keeping matters nebulous: surrealist circles on a backdrop.
Deeley and Kate are a married couple whose quiet life is about to be interrupted by Anna (Best, of TV’s “Nurse Jackie”). Anna was Kate’s roommate, we’re told, some 20 years before, when the girls were freewheeling friends in post-war London. After their long separation, Anna has come to visit from Sicily, where she lives an apparently affluent existence.
There’s some question about the nature of the relationship between Kate and Anna. In fact, there’s some question as to whether Anna even exists at all, or if she’s some sort of wraithlike figure Deeley or Kate has devised in response to problems in their marriage.
Throughout the evening, the three recall events, though no one’s memories are quite in sync. All the performers manage the tricky dialogue with finesse, making this the sort of revival you’d want to see a second time just to catch all the nuances.
Owen, in his Broadway debut, is louche and bemused, at first pushing brandy on his wife’s guest with cocky and jerky movements that seem particular to, well, old times … or, at the very least, “Mad Men.” Reilly uses her dreamlike gaze to fine effect as something of an introvert who doesn’t like the way her husband bosses her around (it’s almost a variation on her “True Detective” character, the put-upon lover of Vince Vaughn’s scheming gangster).
The focal point of the production, though, is British actress Best, who earned one of her two Tony nominations for the 2008 revival of Pinter’s “The Homecoming.” As the most confident of the characters, she’s all dolled up here and looking back with unambiguous affection on the memories she and Kate share from two decades ago.
We’re never sure of Anna’s motivations, but she’s a disruptive force on the couple, reminding Deeley of one sexually charged afternoon in a bar (Poor Deeley! He ended up marrying the shy girl!), and jolting bored, country-living Kate with tales of their capricious youth and her now-glam existence.
The production lasts slightly more than an hour, and the lack of action may lead you to find it polarizing -- I loved hearing one theatergoer confidently sniff to a companion: “Well, this is art!” We can never be sure the truths the characters talk about are true at all. To paraphrase the playwright, the past is what these characters remember ... or pretend they remember.
“Old Times,” through Nov. 29 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $67-$137. Call 212-719-1300.