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The latest revival of Pinter's inverted romantic-triangle play is three shades of gray.
Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The 1978 drama Betrayal is mostly told backward, but, paradoxically, it may be Harold Pinter’s most straightforward work. The first scene depicts a meeting between Jerry (Charlie Cox) and Emma (Zawe Ashton), two years after the end of the long extramarital relationship they conducted behind the back—or at least to the side—of her husband, the slick Robert (Tom Hiddleston), who was Jerry’s close friend at the time; the final scene, set nine years earlier, shows the night their duplicity began. In between, Pinter traces the disintegration of each side of the play’s romantic triangle, sketching in details of events that have already been alluded to. (The back-to-front structure is not rigorous; three of the scenes follow the ones before them in chronological order.) But unlike, say, The Birthday Party or The Homecoming, Betrayal has no overarching sense of enigma. The solutions to its mysteries are handed to us in advance; since we already know what will happen, the play's interest largely involves our knowledge of who knows what when, and who knows that they know it, and what they aren’t saying. As is Pinter’s wont, the script is replete with moments when the characters don’t speak—a very slow cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” is heard between scenes—which invites us to fill in the play’s emotional blanks. These are pauses that send out tasteful announcements of their pregnancy.
Pinter’s bone-dry, stiff-lipped tale of infidelity relies upon the audience’s faith: It effectively asks that we take its word that these characters are interesting, and invest in them accordingly. But what if we don’t? What if these three people, with their discreetly managed indiscretions, their idle gossip about common acquaintances in the literary world, their occasional allusions to Yeats for a soupçon of depth—what if they merely bore us?
Director Jamie Lloyd’s production, the play’s third Broadway revival in 18 years, is capably acted but spare, gray and chilly; there is no set but two wooden chairs, a small folding table and a back wall that sometimes moves forward or backward. In each of the two-person scenes, the absent character lingers onstage like a gloomy ghost, sometimes nursing a drink. Everything seems intended to suggest the very English repression of great passions that the play never actually conveys. At the performance I attended, Hiddleston’s icy facade cracked—during the scene in which he discovers his wife’s adultery—to release a physical outpouring of fluid so profuse that it seemed like a magic trick, as though the actor had swiftly turned on and off a faucet that was hidden in his face. It was a strange and incongruous moment, and it provided a welcome burst of surprise in a production that is otherwise a chic and dreary affair.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Broadway). By Harold Pinter. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. With Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, Charlie Cox. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermision.