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Ashes To Ashes

The lights dim so that Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn are seen as shadowy forms entering Tony Walton's elegant set. Blackout, lights on and the sound of a police siren.

Welcome to the latest creation of the theater world's best-known puzzle designer, Harold Pinter. To quote from a another famous and more realistic playwright, Arthur Miller, "attention, attention must be paid." Here that means paying close attention to every word, pause, gesture and stage detail. Everything is a clue to help you figure out the meaning of this new 45-minute one-acter. If the clues don't add up to a neatly pieced together jigsaw, not to worry. Interpreting and misinterpreting Pinteresque visual and spoken language seems to be half the pleasure of seeing the great mazemaker's plays.

Ashes to Ashes, true to its predecessors is typically oblique. Pinter devotees will recognize enough familiar character traits, plot twists (if one dares use that term in connection with his work), and overall nuances to piece together the puzzle outlines and shade the blank spaces with their own reactions. Those who feel that the playwright's bent for shrouding his meaning in obscure language, are not likely to praise the play's brevity rather than quibble about whether they're getting their money's worth. If they don't stay for the talkback hosted by a member of the Roundabout organization, those who travel by bus can make it home on a single fare (so deduct $1.50 from those tickets!)

Both those whose Pinter pleasures stem from not understanding and those who delight in discovering hidden meanings and evidences of brilliance, will agree that the chief satisfactions from this latest pint-sized Pinter come from the staging and Lindsay Duncan's interpretation of a beautiful woman increasingly tormented by a painful past. Duncan fully captures the mysterious, dreamy aloneness of Rebecca. (Her name is known to us only because it's in the program notes). If she outshines David Strathairn, it's at least partly due Pinter's having stacked the dramatic deck. Rebecca is more interesting and emotionally engaging than Devlin, the husband who insistently rummages around her psyche without ever really listening to what she say.

Rather than to give you my interpretation (which may well differ from yours and the next person's anyway), I'll leave you with some breadcrumbs to examine carefully if you venture to this Pinter-ama via the Gramercy Theater (which, incidentally, is a beautiful and spacious venue):

Tony Walton's tranquil appearing drawing room set is filled with almost as many possible hidden symbols as a Hirshfeld cartoon has Ninas. For starters, consider that picture window. Why are there no handles to open it and let in the brightness outside? Then compare that rather cold, dark room with its symmetrically positioned chairs, sterile lamps and artificial-looking plant with the alive looking garden outside the window. Could there be some metaphoric connection between this home and the implied references to prisons of the Nazi era? Still on the set, there's the diamond platform its point directly opposite the tiangular window. At first glance this is a clever way to give greater depth to the stage. If you watch carefully, you'll note that the action takes place only on the front half of that diamond Could there be more to this triangular imagery than meets the eye? After all, this is a two-way interchange that keeps coming back to a never seen (possibly fantasized) third man.

Since there isn't a single clothing change, Walton's double credit as costume as well as set designer may seem something of a puzzle in itself. However, on closer inspection we come up another suspect for more symbolism. So look upon Ms. Duncan's bare-armed, low cut summer dress and Mr. Strathairn's color-coordinated but much more covered up turtle-neck and jacket as personality clues rather than fashion statements.

Finally, while not mentioned anywhere in the program, Pinter has told interviewers that his inspirational source for Ashes to Ashes came from reading a biography of Hitler's architect, Albert Speers -- a very civilized man (like the academic Devlin) to be associated with extreme cruelty (like the unseen man who seems not just a sadistic lover but a man capable of ripping babies out of women's arms).

Related Link:
A Pinter revival we reviewed: Betrayal

By Harold Pinter
Directed by Karel Reisz
With Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn
Sets and Costumes: Tony Walton
Lighting design: Richard Pilbrow
Sound design: G. Thomas Clark
Roundabout/Gramercy Theatre, 23rd St. at Lexington Av.719-1300). Previews: 1/19/99-5/05/99; opens 2/04/99.
Reviewed 2/10/99 by Elyse Sommer based on 2/09/99 performance

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