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CRITIC AT LARGE

For Ullmann, The Name Of The Game Is Choices

November 07, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Stage actors have to put up with a good deal. Late arrivals, early departures, the noise of chocolates and catarrhs. Liv Ullmann reports that she and her two partners in "Old Times," Harold Pinter and Nicola Pagett, encountered a new hazard during the production's break-in run of two weeks in St. Louis.

They were there, and so was the World Series. The audience was a thicket of transistor radios and earphones. Occasionally the earphones would be passed from Mr. to Mrs. and soft curls of play-by-play would drift up like smoke.

On the night the Cardinals scored in the ninth to avert sure defeat, there were fierce, triumphant outcries, and such a din of car-honking in the streets outside that the players had to pause, extending the usual Pinteresque silences.

"No doubt," Liv Ullmann says generously, "they had bought the tickets before they knew the games would be there, and didn't want to waste them. One man even had a tiny television set he kept at his feet." (A meaner soul than Ullmann might have been tempted to say that what happened later in Kansas City was poetic justice.)

Acting in Harold Pinter's play, with Harold Pinter, has been a remarkable experience for Ullmann. "I don't think I've ever acted in a play whose author was still alive, let alone acting in the play with me," she says.

She made her English stage debut in the revival of "Old Times" last spring at the Haymarket Theatre, with Michael Gambon and Pagett. When producers James Nederlander and Elliot Martin invited the play to the United States, Gambon was not available but Pinter, who began as a repertory actor in 1949 and has appeared in several productions of his plays, agreed to do the brief tour.

They rehearsed in London, and Ullmann says, "Even if we had never opened, it would still be one of the most interesting experiences I've ever had in the theater."

David Jones, who directed the film of Pinter's "Betrayal" with Ben Kingsley, guided both the London production of "Old Times" and this one. But Pinter as author, she says, never imposed on Jones. "He never said, 'I made the play, so you do it this way.' " Still, this version works quite differently from the London production, she adds, "because the male is so dominant."

As Dan Sullivan suggested in his review, it is quite likely a funnier version, because Pinter, in the earlier going, extracts maximum laughter from the kind of timely exchange of loaded banalities that might lead the unwary to suspect they're in Neil Simon country.

But "Old Times," teasing and ambiguous, is more like a chess game played on a board with no squares, so that you can't be quite sure what the moves are, or even of the object of the game.

Ullmann seems to be an old friend of the wife, come to visit her and her husband at their remote seaside home. But, as Ullmann says with some understatement, "People shouldn't expect a 'Dynasty' plot." The pleasure is in the perplexity.

Liv Ullmann was last in town talking about her second book, "Choices," which was largely about her work with UNICEF. She was an early visitor to the refugee camps at the Cambodian border to dramatize the terrible conditions there, and an early visitor to the famine victims of Africa.

The book was about all manner of personal choices, and she recently made a major choice, marrying a personable Boston real estate developer named Donald Saunders. They met two years ago when she gave a lecture in Boston, and were married in Rome where she was filming a Mario Monicelli comedy, "I Hope It's a Girl."

("Monicelli is 70, but it's a most liberated funny film about how wonderful women are if allowed to do their own thing without men messing around.")

Even before the current Los Angeles run at the Henry Fonda Theatre (formerly the Pix movie house) on Hollywood Boulevard, Saunders had seen "Old Times" 39 times. "We called him our audience inspector."

By her present plan, she will next do Brecht's "Mother Courage" as the opening production of the new Norwegian National Theatre in Oslo. Then she hopes to spend two years working full time on a special UNICEF project, operating out of an office of her own. She and Saunders plan to divide their time between Norway and the United States. Her daughter, Linn, a student at New York University, has also become increasingly active in UNICEF and would like to interrupt school to devote her own full time to it. "Now she steals from my speeches, and I steal from hers," Linn's mother says with pride.

It seems clear that the author of "Choices" has made some significant choices in both her personal and professional life. "Only learning--doing something I haven't done before--makes acting interesting for me anymore," Ullmann says. "What I do has to be more than a job, and more than glamorous. It has to mean something."

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