There was a huge line to see the fourth Broadway production of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play about an adulterous triangle. The enthusiasm, I had assumed, was because the cast includes the movie star Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the Marvel Avengers franchise) and TV regulars Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton, all three making their Broadway debuts. But nobody I talked to on the line mentioned the cast as the reason they were attending. “It was a hit on the West End,” one said. “It’s Harold Pinter,” said another.
I didn’t share in the enthusiasm before seeing the new revival, which I guess counts as full disclosure, or a confession, or at least a caveat when I tell you that I didn’t feel enthusiastic about it afterwards either.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
Betrayal is one of the most accessible and most frequently performed of the plays by Pinter, a Nobel laureate who died at the age of 78 in 2008. But I’d be content to see the play once a decade, and I saw the last Broadway revival just six years ago, starring the married couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as the married couple Robert and Emma, and Rafe Spall as Jerry, Robert’s best friend and Emma’s long-time lover.
In that production, director Mike Nichols took many liberties – and, in retrospect, I’m glad he did. The play is famously told in reverse, so that the beginning of the play is in 1977, a couple of years after Jerry and Emma’s affair has ended, and the scenes wind back toward the beginning of their affair nine years earlier. In the last scene, which takes place in 1968 and is the beginning of their affair, Pinter’s final stage direction says: “They stand still, looking at each other.” In Nichols’ production, Robert and Emma didn’t stand still. He attacked her, and then they kissed passionately. Throughout the production, in place of British reserve, Nichols substituted shouting, grabbing, groping, and even coupling.
In the new revival, directed by Jamie Lloyd, they do stand still looking at each other – many times. But the “they” has changed – it’s all three members of the triangle. The main innovation in director Jamie Lloyd’s production of the 90-minute play is that the three don’t leave the stage, even during what is written as private (secretive!) scenes between two of them. The third is close by. Sometimes they stand on a turntable built into the stage, and wind up circling one another. The message seems clear: Whatever any of them do, and wherever they are, all three are intertwined; all three affect one another…betray each other, and themselves.
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The latest version restores the British reserve. It’s nearly an understatement to call the production minimalist. There’s no set to speak of, just a wall and two chairs. Jon Clark’s lighting gives us plenty of dramatic, distorted, haunting shadows that suggest something profound or at least significant, although I’m not sure what.
When I read the script, I detect a lot of humor, albeit some of it dry, dark. Jerry expresses hurt and outrage when he finds out that Robert has known for years about Jerry’s affair with Emma; he’s outraged at Emma for telling Robert, but also at Robert, because Robert didn’t tell Jerry that Emma had told him. The adulterer Jerry thus feels….betrayed.
The cast is perfectly appealing. Indeed, they often look like models posed for a fashion shoot. But their delivery is so slowly paced and at an odd remove – Pinteresque, one might call it – that the humor didn’t make it to my seat.
When Lloyd’s Betrayal opened to general acclaim last Spring at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, a British critic called the production revelatory. The revelation for me is how little I could embrace a production so many others have admired, of a play whose subtleties I’ve appreciated in the past, and not just on paper.
Betrayal is on stage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036) through December 8, 2019. Tickets and details
Betrayal by Harold Pinter, directed by Jamie Lloyd, scenic and costume design by Soutra Gilmour, lighting design by Jon Clark, and sound design and music by Ben and Max Ringham, featuring Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, and Charlie Cox, Eddie Arnold as the waiter. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.
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