Thursday, September 5, 2019

65 (2019-2020): Review: BETRAYAL (seen August 31, 2019)

"Pauses, Poses, and Pinter" 

In the 1960s, British playwright Harold Pinter (1930-2008), who went on to earn a Nobel Prize, was married to actress Vivien Merchant but having a seven-year fling with BBC-TV personality Joan Bakewell. This personal experience was one of several important influences on his 1978 drama about marital infidelity, Betrayal, now receiving its fourth (and, possibly, best) Broadway production since 1980.
Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton, Tom Hiddleston. All photos: Mark Brenner.
I recall being unimpressed by that mostly lauded 1980 staging, largely because I considered its three usually outstanding American stars, Roy Scheider as Robert, Blythe Danner as Emma, and Raul Julia as Jerry, to be unconvincing as highly-educated Brits. I missed the 2000 revival, starring Liev Schreiber, Juliette Binoche, and John Slattery, as Robert, Emma, and Jerry. None was English, but, in 2013, when the potentially awesome all-British cast of Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Rafe Spall played the the same roles, my response (unlike that of most viewers) was only ho-hum.

For the current, limited-run, revival at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, which originated earlier this year during London’s Pinter at the Pinter season, the biggest name among the English leads is Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the Avengers movies), who plays Robert. This is not to say his bright costars, Zawe Ashton (Velvet Buzzsaw) as Emma and Charlie Cox (Philip, Duke of Crowborough on “Downton Abbey”) is Jerry, are in any way diminished by his charismatic presence. They play their roles with the diamond-cutting precision of master jewelers.

But that is still not enough to convince me that Betrayal is more substance than style. In fact, the brilliance of the acting here in Jamie Lloyd’s unconventionally minimalist, finely tuned staging only serves to emphasize the play’s technical glitter over its emotional heartbeat. In the interest of brevity, allow me to adapt the capsule summary of the plot from my review of the 2013 production.

It tells the story of how, in 1968, Jerry, a literary agent (Pinter’s avatar), a married man and father, falls for and begins his affair with Emma. She is the gallery-owning wife of Robert, a publisher who is Jerry’s closest friend (his best man, in fact). The affair lasts seven years and ends in 1975. For much of the time, the lovers conduct their clandestine romance in a rented flat. Meanwhile, Robert begins his own affair, as does Jerry’s wife, Judith. A coda, set in 1977, two years after the affair ends, brings the former lovers together at a pub, and Emma reveals that she is now involved with another writer, one of Jerry’s clients whose publisher is Robert.

What makes this otherwise straightforward tale of adulterous love, male bonding and deception, and scratched memories (à la Proust) intriguing is its backward chronology, with the 1977 post-affair coda actually being the first scene, and with the play then proceeding to eight scenes set, respectively, in 1975, 1974, 1973, 1971, and 1968 (1977 has two scenes and 1973 has 3).

And what makes this production intriguing is its abandonment of realistic scenery in favor of an essentially bare stage, designed by Soutra Gilmour, using only a couple of chairs, and very few other props. Instead of recognizable locales, we see a low, beige, color-textured wall running straight across the upstage area beneath a black ceiling in which multiple, embedded lighting strips run parallel to the wings. Jon Clark’s exceptional lighting paints the background with a mood-enhancing palette, casting the actors’ razor-sharp silhouettes on the wall, as well as varying the spatial feeling with shuttering effects.
Charlie Cox.
In line with this spare, visual restraint are both Pinter’s remarkably polite, reticent, outburst-free script and the actors themselves, each model-slender, wearing the same clothing throughout, their every movement calibrated for effect. Lloyd creates an almost Becketian world in which each gesture, twist of the leg, or crook of the neck--even the way Robert eats a meal--seems choreographed for imagistic impact, almost as if you could take a picture of any moment and get a Vogue-worthy shot. Ashton’s Emma seems especially prone to standing in ways that seem more poses than positions. 
Zawe Ashton, Charlie Cox, Tom Hiddleston. 
Souter’s perfectly-tailored costumes further enhance the physical attractiveness, Robert’s black garb balanced by Jerry’s grayish jacket, with the principal source of color being Emma, the triangle’s pulse, perpetually barefooted in an elegant, high-shouldered, blue, silk blouse and slightly bell-bottomed jeans. 
Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton, Tom Hiddleston.

Duologues are performed, often with those involved sitting in spindle-backed wooden chairs as the third member of the trio remains upstage, near the wall, present but not present, a constant reminder of his or her significance to the others in the layered strata of betrayal. And while the set may be ultrasimple-looking, it’s actually mechanically complex, using slow-moving concentric turntables that allow the chairs and actors to circle in opposite directions to fascinating effect. 
Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton.
The tall, high-cheekboned Hiddleston, a classically-trained actor who has starred as Hamlet and Coriolanus, is in his element, as are his colleagues, in digging into Pinter’s pregnant pauses, elliptical sentences, and subtextual currents. Lloyd’s direction exploits the playwright’s mannerisms for all they’re worth, and the stage is often electric with unspoken thoughts and repressed feelings. 
Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, Charlie Cox.
But, over the course of 90 minutes, the plot’s revelations gradually lose power because, after all, the backward trajectory has begun by telling us the result of what has already happened and whose origins the play is seeking to uncover. There are few surprises in store in such a pattern, everything that transpires seeming only to put us on a path of diminishing returns. 

Betrayal is getting a first-class revival here, interestingly directed and designed, and played with just the kind of knowing reserve, cutting psychological insight, and brittle wit great British acting can provide. Every ounce of meaning would seem to have been squeezed from the dramatic tube. Yet,  in this coolly sophisticated, bitingly cerebral environment, the result is more head than heart, or, as I suggested before, more style than substance. All things considered, however, it’s definitely the best of my three Betrayals.

Bernard J. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th St., NYC
Through December 7