Harold Pinter remains the king of silence; no one wrote pauses as well as he did. Over his lengthy career he wrote over fifty works for the theater and screen, few so universally praised as his 1978 play, “Betrayal”, one of his so-called “memory plays”. This was a revealing effort at the time, since Pinter himself was then involved in an extra-marital affair with a British journalist. “Betrayal”, which plays in reverse chronology from 1977 to 1968, is about a seven year long affair encompassing several layers of betrayal. The original 1980 Broadway production lasted a mere 170 performances. It was first seen in a Boston production that same year, at the Charles Playhouse Theater, with Jenny Agutter, Paul Benedict, and Richard Jordan; the film version in 1983 starred Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge. Those are impressive acts to follow.
The current revival by Huntington Theater Company features Alan Cox (Jerry), Mark H. Dold (Robert), Gretchen Egolf (Emma), and Luis Negron (Waiter), impeccably directed by Huntington favorite Maria Aitken (“39 Steps”, “Private Lives”), who even overwhelms with a striking final blackout, which will not be disclosed here. This is a complicated story, not merely because of its time reversal or economy of dialogue. As with most Pinter works, much emotional baggage is hidden and motivations are at first unclear. There is a great deal of self-centered banter disguising fundamental issues with guilt, honesty and deception (including self-deception). As the play evolves in nine spare scenes, we gradually understand just how complex the relationships are; Emma may need both men at times, but the two men also need each other, and for a while all their individual betrayals keep them afloat. There is as much meaning in what is not said but merely implied as there is in what is spoken and explicit. What’s truly surprising is how much humor, albeit brittle, lies just beneath the surface; equally surprising, despite the paucity of verbiage, is attention to details (such as the purchase of a Venetian tablecloth) that come to have more meaning as we discover the truths at the core of the story.
Cox, Dold and Egolf are all wonderful players, and even Negron adds some color in his brief scene. Cox, in perhaps the most complex role as the romantic Jerry, is especially moving; Egolf is his perfect foil as the more practical and realistic Emma; and Dold excels in the least showy role as the uptight cuckold Robert who only once lets us see the buttoned down core underneath his very stiff British upper lip. Each has that absolutely essential ability to deliver Pinter’s sparse dialogue that paradoxically speaks volumes. That minimalism is echoed by the nuanced Scenic Design by Allen Moyer, the subtle Costume Design by Nancy Brennan, and the stark Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg and Sound Design by John Gromada (including original music). The use of the cinematic “iris-in” device is very effective in segueing from scene to scene. And there’s that finale, with all the shared baggage this trio has accumulated over the course of their interrelated lives.
Seldom does one get treated to this exalted level of wit and profound depth of meaning. Too often playwrights who create a three character plot suffer from diarrhea of words and constipation of thought. When a writer like Pinter is at the top of his form, and is presented in such a terrific production, theater can be astonishing. In less capable hands, this seventy-two minute work might seem a pointless trifle. In these professional hands, this becomes an extraordinary piece of theater and proves yet again that less is more.