Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn in Ashes to Ashes, written by Harold Pinter and directed by Karel Reisz. Photo by Joan Marcus courtesy Roundabout Theatre Company.
All those words like “transfixing” and “riveting”—words you see advertised on billboards that mean nothing after all, actually mean something when describing The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes. Even before the play starts you’re head-on with the staging, a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque living room, the corner jutting out to the audience. When the characters enter—Devlin (David Strathairn), dressed in tweed and corduroy as if it were a cool, autumn day, and Rebecca (Lindsay Duncan) wearing an almost transparent summer dress—we begin to recognize the cool, cruel irony and sparseness of Harold Pinter. And when Devlin asks, “Did you notice? I am standing in quicksand. Do you notice?” and Rebecca replies, after a moment or two, “Like God,” we know we’re in the hands of a master.
Pinter achieves something in the writing of Ashes to Ashes whereby the play becomes subjective. For the audience, matter comes second to the moment, to what is occurring on stage, to what is said and what is unsaid between the characters (in this case a man and a woman who—it is assumed, but we are never told—are married). None of these things matter in the end, because the audience is left to fill in the facts. This is partially how Pinter captures everyone’s attention so fully—one must work to watch his plays, one must participate. The writer is responsible for “the moment” and what you get—especially when interpreted by two fine actors who understand this, as it was in this production—is “riveting,” “transfixing,” funny, tragic theater. Who else has one character interrupting the other in an exceedingly casual tone, “By the way, I’m terribly upset”? The writing has such momentum and the actors are such elegant players that for this short hour you feel the audience not wanting to breathe or move in their seats—it’s as if we’re in this together.