The Playbill doesn’t tell us in what year the new production of BETRAYAL is set, so theatergoers have every reason to believe it’s taking place in 2019 — and earlier.
For Harold Pinter’s incisive ring-true play goes back in time — well, at least more often than not.
The famous (or infamous) Stephen Sondheim musical that opened 22 months after BETRAYAL has a similar device. Both reiterated that life doesn’t merrily roll along.
So helpful projections are displayed on the back wall to tell us the subsequent scene took place “Two years earlier” or a few hours “Later.”
These are not helpful enough. When the play opened as Broadway’s first new play of the ‘80s, its projections instead showed actual dates. They “started” in 1977 and “ended” in 1968.
Even then, almost four full decades ago, many theatergoers must have winced when Robert happened to disclose a fact about his wife to best friend Jerry.
“I’ve hit Emma once or twice,” he said before admitting that the beating “wasn’t to defend a principle” stemming “from any kind of moral standpoint. I just felt like giving her a good bashing.”
In 1980, Roy Scheider said these lines matter-of-factly, as if he were telling of an incident of no importance. But long before then, even the unfortunate slang expression for a sleeveless T-shirt — “a wife beater” — was being damned into justifiable obscurity. Surely by 2019 in the much-welcomed era of #MeToo, the Pinter estate and director Jamie Lloyd would excise the lines from this revival.
They’re still there.
Who knows? Perhaps Lloyd did urge the estate’s trustees to use a blue pencil and they declined. Certainly the way Lloyd has directed the moment suggests he doesn’t approve of it. He has Tom Hiddleston say the lines in almost a whisper; those beyond Row J will probably miss it.
Let’s hope so.
These lines are reason enough to have the years from 1977 to 1968 shown in each projection. Not that any husband in the ‘60s or ‘70s should have been excused for hitting his wife; no spouse should have done it in 60 or 70 B.C. But if the lines had to be retained (again: did they?), at least the audience could rationalize “Well, thank God that isn’t happening today … as much.”
Perhaps devoting a review’s first 11 paragraphs to what amounts to a fraction of a fraction of the show is unfair considering that this is a splendid revival. It’s the best of the four productions seen on Broadway in the past 39-plus years.
The betrayal in question is the infernal eternal triangle; Robert and Emma have been married for a while when Jerry comes onto her.
(Some best friend!)
Emma succumbs. Soon the elephant in the room will be another person in the room.
The three betray each other in different ways. More than once will characters pretend not to know information that they’ve actually learned. There’s many a fishing expedition — nay, deep-sea fishing expedition — to see what the other will say.
Hiddleston is especially adept here; the metaphor that “he holds his cards close to his vest” should in his case be changed to “he holds his cards inside his shirt.”
The actor reaches his apotheosis in the magnificent scene when Robert and Emma are vacationing in Italy. A desk clerk has told Robert that a letter for his wife has arrived; would he like to take it to her?
No, he wouldn’t, for he recognizes Jerry’s handwriting on the envelope. So he’ll let Emma pick it up and then see if she mentions it.
She doesn’t, so he brings it up – not in the way you might assume, though. He off-handedly mentions that Italian desk clerks handle such matters differently from Americans. Pinter wouldn’t have considered having Robert say “What was in that letter from Jerry?”
That brings us to “The Pinter Pause,” which became an idiom after the playwright started his rise to fame in the ‘50s. He hadn’t abandoned these breaks-in-the-action when he wrote BETRAYAL; the play’s first scene alone calls for 36 of them.
In each, Pinter wanted his performers to fill in the blank. Zawe Ashton does just that after Robert mentions the letter to Emma. He stares at her and waits for her to incriminate herself.
He’s in for a long wait in the production’s most heart-stopping moment. During these interminable seconds, the tension is as taut as watching a high-wire walker perform the morning after he’d imbibed a fifth of Bacardi 151.
(One could argue that a lover would never dare send a letter to his mistress when she’s on a trip with her husband – and one would be on solid ground to infer that. This scene does bring us into he-wanted-to-get-caught territory.)
Pinter was the master of sublime subtext in his dialogue, too. When BETRAYAL takes us to the day when Jerry and Emma will end the affair, it doesn’t show a dish-breaking upturned-table fight. Instead, Emma casually happens to ask when she and Jerry last inhabited their secret hideaway. This implies that an inordinate length of time has passed and that the two have grown apart.
Jerry guesses “Summer” and Emma rebuts with “It was the beginning of September” only to have Jerry respond “Well, that’s summer.” It’s a clever way of showing us that the two are no longer on the same wavelength – and Lloyd ensures that Charlie Cox says his factually accurate line without any rancor.
Lloyd has overdone only one scene. Robert is seeing Jerry for the first time since he’d learned what was going on. He exhibits such loud and anti-social behavior that Jerry would know something’s wrong and would quickly guess what it is.
Those who love flashy sets will be disappointed when seeing only three walls, two chairs, one table that makes a late appearance and some fluorescent lights above it all. It’s so spare that one could say it’s as simple as A, B without the C. Some will feel they’d shelled out more when they paneled their downstairs basement.
Those two chairs, though, make their own statement. These three people are playing a silent game of musical chairs where one person will always be out.
But wait! There’s more! Set designer Soutra Gilmour has provided a turntable. It may seem to be a mere novelty at first, but Gilmour and Lloyd have found a way to make it really mean something.
Still, with not all that much to look at, Lloyd was wise to play virtually all of the action close to the lip of the stage. The performers are so near the audience that if they didn’t brush their teeth before they went on, the front-row-center attendees would run the risk of smelling the halitosis.
If so, that would be their only imperfection. Finding a trio of performers this accomplished would seem tantamount to winning the lottery three days in a row.
Hiddleston has a quiet moment of triumph when Robert finally gets the better of Jerry; the cuckold has been literally waiting for years for this confrontation, and he’ll play it elegantly, which will unnerve Jerry even more. Cox excels at having Jerry trying to discern what does the husband know and when did he know it.
When all is not going well for Emma, Ashton gives a smile that is able to convey that the situation is actually tragic. However, when the three are together and Robert mentions “what bright young men” he and Jerry were, Ashton smiles with pride. But which is the man of whom she is more proud?
Incidentally — no, not so incidentally — an actor named Eddie Arnold appears only in the seventh of the play’s nine intermissionless scenes but makes a strong impression as a waiter.
We’re now in an era where believing “There are no small parts, only small actors” is harder for performers to buy (for in high schools, only leads get cheek microphones). Arnold has all of 71 words and winds up getting about a half-dozen laughs out of them.
Of course this sequence proves something else about Pinter. The man respected comic relief, too.
It’s Arnold’s Broadway debut, but for that matter, all three actors and the director are here for the first time, too. Each of them is a revelation.
If only we didn’t have to hear Robert’s revelation …