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Written by Harold Pinter; directed by Jamie Lloyd
Performances through December 8, 2019
Harold Pinter’s Betrayal charts the fallout of an affair between Jerry, a literary agent, and Emma, a gallery owner; Emma is married to Robert, a book publisher and Jerry’s best friend. Pinter’s gimmick is to start with the end: Jerry and Emma meet for a drink a couple of years after their liaison has finished, followed by Jerry and Robert discussing Emma’s assertion that she confessed the affair to Robert the previous evening. Robert says that’s wrong: she admitted it four years ago.
Betrayal then proceeds to dissect the relationships of Jerry, Emma and Robert (Jerry’s wife Judith has been conveniently omitted) as a trio and as two couples. But, as Pinter shows in the opening scenes, not everything said can be taken at face value: things are misremembered or lied about.
It’s too bad that Pinter doesn’t do much with either his reverse-chronology or the intriguing theme of the fallibility (or willful denial) of memory. Instead, Pinter treats his own characters rather contemptuously. Although they spend their time talking about novels and poetry (Yeats most obviously and, after several mentions, eye-rollingly), they are not real artists but only peripheral to them as agent, gallery owner and publisher. There’s even a supremely cynical moment where Pinter has Robert admit to Jerry at a wine-soaked lunch that he hates modern novels, even though it’s his financial bread and butter.
Pinter takes every opportunity to ridicule his characters, and the audience, armed with the knowledge of what’s to come, chortles smugly each time something happens that the threesome doesn’t know about. With such cheap tricks, Pinter is in effect canceling out his own work. Although he’d never be accused of sentiment—indeed, nastiness and cynicism pervade much of his oeuvre—the scene in Betrayal which we are waiting for (when Robert discovers Emma’s infidelities long before Jerry thought he did) is quite effective in Jamie Lloyd’s savvy staging, especially as enacted with sorrowful sympathy by Tom Hiddleston (Robert) and Zawe Ashton (Emma). (The most recent Broadway production, despite the star power of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, flubbed this and many other scenes.)
Those moments between the married couple—highlighted, at the performance I attended, by very real spittle draining from Hiddleston’s nose—are rare in Pinter’s oeuvre, since they make us feel for them, and that surprising tenderness makes what happens before and after less genuine.
Although he does not overdo the infamous Pinter pauses, Lloyd’s direction relies on Pinterish gimmicks. Some work quite handily, like having whoever is not in a scene to hover in the background of Soutra Gilmour’s starkly bare set. However, that is turned on its head dramatically in one scene as Hiddleston’s Robert is sitting in a chair as Charlie Cox’s Jerry and Ashton’s Emma get intimate near him. While this device has been done to death, Lloyd shrewdly uses it to hammer home the point that, in an affair, even when only two people are present, the third is, as it were, also there. (But, again, why is Judith left out? Most likely because a ménage à quatre is more unwieldy to dramatize than a ménage à trois.)
Another overused device, the stage turntable, helps to, throughout the intermissionless play’s 90-minute running time, slowly shift both the characters’ places in relation to one another and, by extension, their (and our) perspectives, with the helpful assistance, to be sure, of Jon Clark’s magisterial lighting.
Would that the unnecessary appearance of Emma and Robert’s young daughter, Charlotte, added something to what is, in the end (or the beginning), an attenuated and superficial drama. Despite all that, Hiddleston incisively depicts Robert’s fatuousness and Cox precisely portrays how Jerry is torn between his best friend and said friend’s wife, while a forceful Ashton makes Emma far more complex than Pinter’s script wants her to be.
Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY
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