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Theatre in Review: Betrayal (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton. Photo Marc Brenner.

Even given Harold Pinter's reputation as the master of dramatic minimalism, the new Broadway revival of Betrayal is almost alarmingly stripped-down. The actors often have little more than a couple of chairs with which to play out a scene; when two of the characters adjourn to a restaurant, complete with a table, china, and flatware, it almost feels like an extravaganza. (Given the characters' collective fondness for liquor, you can be sure that plenty of glasses and bottles are available at all times.) Played out on such a stark landscape, rendered in a nearly monochromatic palette, aided by the moody, jazz-inflected incidental music by Ben and Max Ringham, this production often feels chic enough for Calvin Klein's next ad campaign.

And yet, more than any other I have seen, Jamie Lloyd's staging lays bare the play's elegant bones, the tightly knotted network of lies and evasions in which its characters are so unhappily entangled. As Lloyd and his excellent trio of actors make devastatingly clear, the use of the singular in the title is an understatement; this is a drama rife with betrayals, each of which serves to drive three ostensibly loving people farther apart, leaving them isolated and psychologically scarred.

Betrayal is, famously, the play that goes backward, a device that so rarely works, but which in this case works brilliantly. (As Walter Kerr once noted, this is probably because the action begins with the characters, survivors of a long-running triangle, rooting around in the ashes of their expired passion, then moves steadily in reverse toward the white-hot emotions that proved so destructive.) We first see Emma and Jerry, ex-lovers, in an awkward reunion sometime following the end of their seven-year affair; after considerable fencing, Emma drops the news that she and Robert, her husband, are breaking up, thanks to the revelation of his multiple infidelities. The irony of this is too obvious for words, and Jerry is horrified to learn that Emma has, in return, supplied Robert with the details of her own extramarital adventures. After all, Jerry is Robert's best friend.

Next comes a confrontation between Jerry and Robert in which, to the former's mounting dismay, more ugly truths are spoken. From there, Pinter rewinds the clock, tracing the lies, evasions, and power plays that mar this trio's seeming intimacies - which, as it happens, prove to be more like war games. There isn't a single line in Betrayal that doesn't constitute a maneuver, a retreat, or a strategic advance, and each is rendered in this production with stunning lucidity.

Betrayal calls for actors skilled at saying one thing while meaning something entirely different, and Lloyd has found an expert trio of practitioners. Consider the way Zawe Ashton, as Emma, whips her head to one side, scrutinizing her interlocutor with a you-don't-really-mean-that smile, a coolly rendered tactic that allows her to play for time. Or how, decrying the neglect of the love nest that she and Jerry no longer use, she fixates, laughingly, on the tablecloth she purchased on a vacation in Venice; buried in a seemingly casual line reading is the death of love, reluctantly admitted. Indeed, that trip to Venice is where the betrayals become most acute: Tom Hiddleston, as Jerry, turns a chat about a day trip to Torcello and other mundane matters into a coded prosecution that forces Emma into a confession; later, he engages with Charlie Cox's Jerry in a luncheon that is a minefield of concealed hostilities. Cox is expert at showing how Jerry struggles to maintain some kind of equilibrium between his friend and lover; check out his faintly panicked expression when Robert throws his arm around his shoulder, claiming him and leaving Emma suddenly on the outside.

And if the production design initially seems starkly unornamented, it has a crucial role to play: Soutra Gilmour's set, with its moving upstage wall and two turntables, frequently reorients this triangular relationship, and Jon Clark's lighting often traps them in a harsh glare that makes their lies even more evident. Lloyd makes excellent use of the largely open space, leaving whichever character is supposed to be offstage in full audience view, a gesture that strikes to the heart of Pinter's text: In these relationships -- Emma and Jerry, Emma and Robert, Robert and Jerry -- the third person is always, always present. In an unusual liberty, Lloyd puts onstage a character mentioned in the text, a brief addition that adds to our pained awareness that these love games have the potential to harm innocent bystanders.

The one weakness of Lloyd's approach becomes evident in the later scenes, which depict the early days of Emma and Jerry's infatuation; these call for a more direct, emotionally open approach, I think, which the actors don't fully take here. (The final scene -- set in a bedroom during a party at Emma and Robert's house, in which a drunken Jerry makes a full-on pass at Emma -- would benefit from a stronger sense of close quarters, a quality that Gilmour's set can't summon up.) As a result, the production doesn't climax as effectively as it might.

Still, this is by far the best version of Betrayal I've seen; without question, it towers over the two previous Broadway revivals. Most of the time it is exquisitely attuned, with pauses that positively reverberate with unspoken emotion. Most remarkable is the ability of Lloyd and company to give these characters the X-ray treatment, revealing their motives while allowing them to maintain their smiling, apparently loving facades. It's quite a trick, and it can chill you to the bone. -- David Barbour

(12 September 2019)

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