Here is a Harold Pinter mystery he didn't create himself. Is it possible to be dazzled by the cast, especially by Clive Owen in his Broadway debut, stunned anew by the elusive meanings of Pinter's "Old Times" and yet appalled by the production?

OK, maybe "appalled" is too rough -- but not by much. Let's say that director Douglas Hodge's tricked-up staging of this 65-minute 1971 gem is bizarre, at best, and betrays a lack of trust in the lean, unnerving brilliance we know as Pinteresque.

Hodge, the British actor who won a Tony in "La Cage aux Folles," chose to superimpose an over-animated, high-concept spectacle on a playwright whose menace radiates from silence and things unsaid. While Pinter's stage description is typically understated ("a converted farmhouse," "spare modern furniture"), Hodge and designer Christine Jones surround the modular pieces with assaultive flashing white lights and the kind of huge, eye-rolling swirls that hokey old movies used to suggest flashbacks or someone going under hypnosis.

In a simplistic way, "Old Times" is about flashbacks, about memories that may or may not have been shared by a long-married couple and a woman visitor from the wife's past, a woman who may or may not have shared erotic experiences with both the husband and the wife. Of course, Pinter's idea of memory is never simplistic. He frequently wrote about the "immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past." The drama, such as it is, is built on innuendo and insinuation, not overacting and special effects.

Owen is deliciously slick, but not too slick, and, every so often, intentionally, fantastically obnoxious as Deeley, a well-dressed thug whose wife's former London friend has dropped in after 20 years to ... we know not what. Eve Best, so scary-cold and sensual on Broadway in "The Homecoming," has an imposing elegance as the guest who married well, and Kelly Reilly, as the wife, has the quiet feline languor of one who feels the desire simmer off the others in the room.

Pinter has written a memory puzzle that's really a deadly contest of sexual possession. Without gimmicks, musical underscoring and other so-called help, he can fill a catch of the breath or a simple pause with more humanity than many writers can drum up with hours of breast beatings.

But no one looks genuinely at home in these costumes, which are oddly ill-fitting. And Hodge jazzes up too much of the deliveries with squirmy gestures that seem choreographed, as if these people and the histories they may, or may not, have shared were not exciting enough on their close-to-the-bone own. Printed scripts are not holy writs but, at least in this case, Pinter knew best.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

INFO $67-$137; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org