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Trouble in threes 

Unlike horseshoes or hand grenades, "close" doesn't count with Harold Pinter. Productions either fail or they nail his atmosphere of quiet menace, in which the things implied but unspoken are far more ominous than anything the characters say and do. Fledgling company Fly-By Theatre gets credit for daring to stage his especially challenging drama Old Times, even as the play's purpose gets lost in a fog of ambiguity.

The premise should be perfectly innocuous, as Kate (Jennifer Dersin) and her husband Deeley (Eric Zwieg) host a dinner for Anna (Sarah Falkenburg), who 20 years ago was shy Kate's roommate and only friend. While they reminisce about their bygone years as spirited but penniless young women enjoying London life to the full, other tensions simmer. What secrets are the women sharing? Is glamorous Anna trying to steal reserved Kate's husband? Is Deeley threatened by intimations that the women had an affair, or is he up for a menage a trios?

The Fly-By production never sets any baseline of normalcy or naturalism, and the dialogue and situations feel so stilted and inexplicable that Pinter's undercurrents have nothing to push against. Occasionally Deeley lapses into non sequitur snit-fits, but Zwieg's hostility comes out of nowhere and plays in a vacuum. Falkenburg's smoldering, appraising glances prove far more meaningful and confident than anything she says aloud. Dersin vaguely hints that Kate may have some kind of mental illness, but it's possible that the actress holds herself too much in check. She's very vivid late in the play, when Kate finally asserts her power. (Admittedly, the program's promise of nudity adds its own kind of suspense.)

Fly-By sporadically connects with the play, like when Deeley and Anna each face Kate and angrily sing lines from "They Can't Take That Away From Me," as if each is trying to stake a claim on the woman. And the company finds a promising performing space in the high-ceilinged Towne Cinema. But if Pinter plays are meant to intrigue us, Fly-By's Old Times only leaves us perplexed.

Old Times plays through March 23 at Avondale Estates Towne Cinema, 106 N. Avondale Road. Fri.-Sun. at 8 p.m. $10-$15. 404-499-8354.

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