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Old Times at the Loeb Ex tonight at 7:30 p.m.

By Julia M. Klein

THE MOOD IS quiet, subdued. A husband is questioning his wife about her old friend, Anna, who is due to visit them after an absence of 20 years. She sits on a divan, her back to him, answering his questions perfunctorily, but guarding her thoughts, her memories of Anna. She will use those moments later, as a weapon against the two of them, but for now she sits back dreamily, waiting.

In Old Times, the past, heavy with deceit, seeps into the present, muddying and reshaping it. The one who can control "old times" by enunciating its secrets will emerge victorious in the power struggle whose prize is possession of the voluptuous Kate.

Old Times is Pinter at his dramatic best. In this triangular tug-of-war, slow, measured exchanges marked by his famous pauses alternate with exquisitely lyrical monologues. Like the absurdists, Pinter suggests the fluidity of reality by riveting attention on the language that expresses it. His characters wonder at words, make verbal slips and fall silent. Gradually, as the stakes become clearer, the walls of civility they erect crumble; by the end, the ineluctable presence of the past bathes the stage with white light, illumining their loneliness and need.

Or so Pinter's stage directions advise. In the Loeb Ex's sensitive production, however, the final spotlight rests on Anna. The meaning of the ending thus shifts slightly: Anna's inclusion in the household becomes as important as Kate's victory. Our last glimpse is of the unhappy equilibrium the three combatants have reached.

Director Dan Riviera obviously understands Pinter, and his cast of three conveys that understanding to us. As Deeley, the husband, Kevin Grumbach is sometimes too stylized, his voice overly loud and brassy, his emphases not quite right. His Deeley verges too much on the ridiculous. Still, while clearly outclassed by Anna, he manages to appear pitiable in his defeat.

If Grumbach seems at all inadequate, it is because his costars are so nearly perfect. Laura Bartell's Anna is a superbly controlled performance. Her monologues ring with the passion of nostalgia; her eyes, gazing longingly at Kate, and her face, later crumpled with pain, convey decades of meaning.

Playing opposite her, Cornelia Ravenel makes a low-key, sensuous and soft-spoken Kate. Enwrapped in fantasy, she lounges on her divan, her eyes half-closed, as her two lovers fight for the territory of her body; then, terrible in her knowledge, she strikes back, her soft voice hissing vindictiveness. It is all remarkably effective.

The set for Old Times is unusually important, since so much of the play deals with the spaces between people and attempts to penetrate them. Randy Head's set is perhaps too spacious to evoke the claustrophobia of Pinter's world, but its triangular arrangement neatly defines the nature of the central conflict.

Nostalgia is passionate in this play, but it is also suspect. Memories lie, just as words refuse to convey meaning. In this subtly paced and acted production, however, few of Pinter's own resonances are lost.

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