Friday, October 18, 2019


On the surface, Betrayal is about entitled Londoners who meet for fancy lunches, during which they chat about art and literature and the best way to get to Torcello from Venice during summer holidays. They schedule games of squash, exchange niceties about their children and their loveless marriages, and engage in long-term affairs that they eventually throw over for other long-term affairs. On the surface, I do not give much of a rat's ass about people like this, who are hardly unique to London and who have always struck me as occupying a world utterly foreign to me in its material comforts, privileges, and casual amorality. But damn if the current Broadway revival, directed with devastating understatement by Jamie Lloyd, didn't burrow deep into my head. Spare, sparse, and exceedingly restrained in execution, the production gives us characters who have mastered the art of lying to themselves and one another, even as they fail to escape their stasis, disappointment, and sorrow.

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

Loosely inspired by the seven-year affair Pinter had with the journalist Joan Bakewell during his unhappy marriage to the actress Vivien Merchant, Betrayal follows three characters backward in time, beginning two years after the dissolution of a seven-year tryst between gallerist Emma (Zawe Ashton) and literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox), and ending just at the very beginning of it. Emma's husband, book publisher Robert (Tom Hiddleston), is Jerry's best friend and a frequent business associate. In a series of scenes that I suspect could easily feel like so many actors' exercises in the wrong hands, Pinter's characters betray one another in myriad ways as they keep up appearances year after year after year.

Pinter's style is pronounced and influential enough to have earned its own adjective; Pinteresque plays reflect the playwright's penchant for, among other things, terse dialogue sliced through with long pauses, lots of repetition, and vague, benign chatter that belies deeper, sometimes menacing subtext--hence, in Betrayal, so much more than lunch and squash and Torcello, even though these are the topics mentioned over and over and over again. On the page, Pinter doesn't offer much more to go on--his stage directions are as sparse as his dialogue--so I can imagine the temptation to fill in all his gaps with lots of actorly business and overwrought delivery in search of the subtext. Segments of dialogue certainly would seem to court some seriously explosive bluster, as when Robert informs Jerry (over lunch, natch) that he occasionally gives Emma "a good bashing" simply because he feels like it,  or when Emma confesses her affair to Robert, or when Jerry learns that Robert has known of the tryst for years, even as he's continued to schedule lunch dates and invite Jerry for games of squash.

But this production holds back in just about every way: the actors all lean into their restraint, even when you'd expect them not to. The stage, outfitted with a huge turntable that moves the company around in space, remains nearly bare, even as the walls close in and then open out again on the characters. And while every scene is a two-hander, the odd actor always remains onstage nonetheless, lurking in partial shadow: memory is selective, after all, and sometimes time and distance can numb the intensity of even the most intense passion, pleasure, or pain; nevertheless, the characters are, even despite physical absences, always deep in one another's heads.

Rather than making the three characters seem even more obtuse and distant, the silence and minimalism work to reveal layers of meaning in the text. The three characters depicted may be as well-practiced in how not to make a scene as they are in knowing how best to travel to a highly exclusive island resort, but they feel a whole lot realer and more nuanced for the choice. They may be worn amoral from lives of privilege, but this production does a beautiful job of demonstrating how they are also world-weary and searching and sad, no matter how sumptuous the lunches or beautiful the views from their exclusive holiday retreats.

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