BOSTON — Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” is one of those plays that seems to change depending on actors, director, or who knows, maybe even the time or circumstances of one’s life. The Huntington Theatre Company’s latest iteration is like no other production I’ve seen, which is a good thing.
Despite the fact that the play goes backward in time (1977-1968) from two former lovers getting together in a pub to their breakup and, finally, to the original betrayal of the woman’s husband, it’s Pinter’s least abstract play. It’s to his canon what “The Real Thing” is to Tom Stoppard’s, which also means it’s the safest for a theater company to tackle.
Nevertheless, director Maria Aitken and her designers have done fine, unexpected things with the play (at the BU Theatre, through Dec. 9), beginning with Allen Moyer’s spare set design. Someone once said that Huntington audiences leave the theater humming the scenery and if that’s so they’ll be singing a different tune after this short play. The theater’s curtain forms cutout rectangles of the stage, positioning the characters in different times and places. Emma and Jerry meet in a pub, a small space on the lower left of the stage. Jerry has betrayed Robert, Emma’s husband and his close friend, and when the two men meet it’s in large horizontal rooms punctuated by tasteful modern furniture. But only punctuated as the idea is to let a small table or a mattress on the floor speak volumes of who these people are.
And who are they? The men are rather closed-down representatives of upper middle-class literary London of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Talk about small things used as punctuation. A raised eyebrow or an “ah” might be all anyone has to say about a devastating personal revelation. Britishisms like that would risk Pythonesque parody in other hands than Pinter’s, though Pinter is certainly parodying the way we live our lives with his trademark clipped humor. The late Nobel Prize winner could, and did, tell you the difference between a pause of two dots instead of three, and the actors, director and designers all know the difference at the Huntington.
Alan Cox and Mark H. Dold are about as closed down as you can get as Jerry and Robert. Sex, at least for the first half-hour or so of the play, seems like something that one just does, like eating or, particularly in their case, drinking. Robert is more excited by squash followed by a shower and a pint with Jerry than by anything he can achieve with Emma. (Not that there’s anything gay about that.) Jerry seems more interested in a turn of phrase than a night of passion.
In most productions this makes the second half of the play resonate that much more profoundly as you see their humanity and joie de vivre 10 years earlier. But I didn’t much like these guys as the play progressed. Or regressed.
So what’s left? It’s who’s left – Emma. Gretchen Egolf is the riveting presence on stage, as you watch her sadness at the beginning of the play turn into a great passion for life at the beginning. It’s as if circumstances – red hot passion inevitably cools, men can’t talk about anything personal – crush her spirit year by year. That’s the tragedy in this production. Memories alter history from person to person, according to Pinter, but it’s Emma’s memory that seems paramount here.
Pinter, himself, was more the Jerry in the story. He betrayed his wife, Vivien Merchant, with journalist Joan Bakewell, who was married to Michael Bakewell, at one point head of plays for the BBC. But Pinter isn’t looking back in guilt as much as he is in exploring how we get from Point A to Point B which, drawing on his pub meeting with Joan Bakewell took him from Point B to Point A.
When it’s over and the curtain goes up on a remarkable sight – I won’t say what – it’s obvious how linked those points are and how mysterious our journeys are.
Great casts of the past
Jerry, Robert and Emma
- 1980, US premiere at the Charles Playhouse
- Richard Jordan, Paul Benedict, Jenny Agutter
- 1983 film
- Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Hodge
- 1997, Shakespeare & Company
- Allyn Burrows, Dan McCleary, Corinna May,
- Joe Pacheco, Jason Asprey, Anne Gottlieb
Here’s what this cast and director Maria Aitken have to say about the play: