Harold Pinter arrived on the London theatre scene in the mid 1950s along with John Osborne, Shelagh Delaney, Edward Bond, David Storey and Arnold Wesker, among other playwrights who were determined to shake things up. His early plays were dark and mysterious, often obscure, seemingly naturalistic plays with simple titles like The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, The Caretaker, but peopled with complex characters who reveal little, but imply a lot. Most audiences were intrigued and willing to work in order to unearth the secrets many of the characters held close to their breasts. Some theatre goers were offended, and wrote angry letters to editors asking “What does he MEAN?”
In 1978, following a great success with No Man’s Land, a murky piece in which a prominent British citizen invites a man he’s just met in a pub home for a drink. It is never clear whether or not these two men have known each other in the past, and that is probed for two acts, leading to the “no man’s land” in which Pinter leaves us at the end.
Perhaps he wanted to test himself with something more realistic with Betrayal, more close to home, material from his own personal life. And here it is — the story of 3 close friends, two men and a woman. Robert is married to Emma and they are both very close to Jerry, who was Robert’s best man at his wedding. Jerry is also married, but his wife remains an offstage character, as do each couple’s two children. They are hardly mentioned, and don’t seem to figure into this “design for living” arrangement at all.
We meet Emma and Jerry in Scene One. It’s 1977, and they are reuniting for the first time in two years, having ended their seven year adulterous affair in 1975. Emma has called for this meeting because on the night before, she had had an all night row with Robert and her marriage is over. Suddenly she had need to see her ex-lover.
Jerry has always believed that news of their long term affair had never reached Robert, but Emma tells him that last night she told him about it. Jerry is enraged, and goes to see Robert the next morning, only to learn that he’d known about the affair for four years, and had simply accepted it as an irritating fact.
The Pinter pauses pop up throughout the scene in dialogue like this, and I quote: Robert: “I thought you knew.” Jerry: “Knew what?” Robert: “That I knew. That I’ve known for years. I thought you knew that.” Jerry: “You thought I knew?” Robert: “She said you didn’t. But I didn’t believe that.” (Pause). “Anyway, I think I thought you knew. But you say you didn’t?” Jerry; “She told you– when?”
And so it went. At one point, Emma and Jerry were alone in their love nest and she said to him: “I ran into Judith yesterday. (Judith is Jerry’s wife) Did she tell you?” Jerry: No. She didn’t. (Pause) Where?” Emma: “Lunch”. Jerry: “Lunch?” Emma: “She didn’t tell you?” Jerry: “No.” Emma. “That’s funny.” Jerry: What do you mean, lunch? Where?” Emma: “At Fortnum and Mason’s.” Jerry. “At Fortnum and Mason’s? What the hell was she doing at Fortnum and Mason’s?” Emma: “She was lunching with a lady.” Jerry: “A lady?” Emma. “Yes.” (Pause) Jerry: “Fortnum and Mason’s is a long way from the hospital” (where Judith works). Emma: “Of course it isn’t “. The prosecution rests.
I imagine in 1978 this sort of repartée was original, intriguing, fun for actors to play as they filled in all the blanks. We all searched for meaning beneath the seemingly simple verbiage. The play became popular at once. One reason might be that it chose to tell its story backwards, so we first met the lovers two years after their affair had ended, and we worked back to its very beginning in nine brief scenes involving only the 3 principals and a waiter who served them in a restaurant at one point. The actor playing the waiter, Stephen DeRosa, was fine. No pauses. The men were in their 30s through most of the story’s length, and the affair has petered out by the time they hit 40. In today’s light, they all would appear to be adolescent, more suited to the trials and tribulations of Spring Awakening than to a tale of marriage and infidelity and loyalty and guilt and general misery all round in a group of soon-to-be middle aged folks.
The Manhattan Theatre Club has turned to the brilliant Mike Nichols who comes out of retirement every season or two to stage a blockbuster all star limited engagement that’s guaranteed to pretty much sell out the entire run prior to opening. He did it with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl. Mr. Craig did it once before, teaming up with Hugh Jackman in the not so hot A Steady Rain.
Mr. Nichols is now 81 and has every right to protect his semi-retirement by trotting out his good taste and his uncanny ability to make vivid pictures come alive with glittering star names enlivening the theatre season. The genre might be called “tourist attractions”, the sort of things done with big name variety artists in Las Vegas. In the case of Betrayal, he has assembled a potent trio of two major film stars and one lesser known but vastly experienced British stage and film actor — Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz (his real life wife, which only adds sizzle) and Rafe Spall, who is making his Broadway debut, but his credentials including “Life of Pi” on film and Constellations at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, make him a worthy colleague. And they are not just celebrated — they are fine, all of them stage worthy.
It’s all very glossy and professional. The elegant backdrops created by Ian Macneil slide smoothly and noiselessly on and off as the nine scenes take us from Jerry’s house to Robert and Emma’s place to a hotel room in Venice to the lover’s rented flat where they indulge themselves on a wrinkled double bed. It might have seemed dishy in England in the 1970s; today the affair seems adolescent, self indulgent and incredible to sustain for seven long years. It also makes the three principal characters unsavory; Robert’s acceptance of his wife’s infidelity, her acceptance of his (oh yes, Robert’s been fooling around too but we never meet any of his conquests) and Jerry’s constant understandable malaise at finding no satisfaction or fulfillment anywhere.
It might have been cathartic for Mr. Pinter to put it all down, for it is said to be based on his own experience, but I left the Barrymore Theatre last week unmoved, and by the time I arrived home I found it difficult to remember the details of the dime novel plot with which I’d just spent 90 minutes. As the play is breaking house records at the box office, I can only congratulate the creative staff and the stars for totally accomplishing what they set out to do. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just not very special in any way.
Betrayal is onstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, NYC. Details and tickets.