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NEW YORK – In the Internet age of sexting scandals and tabloid humiliation, infidelity without public shaming seems almost quaint. So why is Harold Pinter’s 1978 play, Betrayal, still such a bristling drama? Its structural brilliance, for one thing, tracking an adulterous triangle in reverse chronology that stretches back nine years and uncovers as many mysteries as it solves. It also doesn’t hurt to have actors like Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall at the absolute top of their game. Likewise, director Mike Nichols, who coaxes his cast to mirror their characters, carefully parsing every word for hidden meaning. In a play largely about what’s unsaid, that makes for thrilling theater.
The production has been doing stellar business in previews, grossing north of $1 million a week, which is rare for a non-musical. Its limited run through Jan. 5 is virtually sold out. That’s due largely to the marquee-name cast, but also to Nichols, whose last Broadway foray was the revelatory 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman that starred Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield.
That quintessentially American Arthur Miller play requires a different skill set to anything by Pinter, whose fundamental subject was Englishness, explored in weighted, often cryptic dialogue and loaded silences. If the director found fresh insights in the raw, wrenching emotionality of Miller’s masterwork, he’s no less successful at probing the buttoned-up depths of Pinter’s play, in which feelings are masked by politesse, repression, small talk or other, more brutal conversational camouflage. The balance of complex psychological drama, pervasive melancholy and acid humor is riveting.
In addition to Nichols’ firm handle on performance and text, the director has enlisted a superb design team. The scene changes alone are a kind of hypnotic theatrical ballet, enhanced by somber incidental music from James Murphy, the man behind LCD Soundsystem, working here in a very different vernacular.
Ian MacNeil’s sets glide in and out while elements ascend or descend to create realistic boxes wrapped in the artifice of stage space. The scenes shift fluidly from a London pub to a ‘70s-modern living room, from a frugally appointed love nest to a plush Venetian hotel suite. Ann Roth’s costumes tell us much about who these people are, while Brian McDevitt’s lighting navigates the play’s mercurial moods with laser-like precision.
Betrayal is Pinter’s most personal and accessible work, and its needling depiction of deceit, regret and irrationality could only have come from authentic experience. The playwright was inspired by his own long clandestine affair – during his first marriage to actress Vivien Merchant – with BBC reporter Joan Bakewell, whose husband, the radio and television producer Michael Bakewell, was Pinter’s friend and professional colleague. The play explores the sting of betrayal between spouses, but perhaps even more deeply between male friends, not to mention self-betrayal.
It opens in 1977 as gallery manager Emma (Weisz) and literary agent Jerry (Spall) meet two years after the end of their seven-year affair. Emma has been up all night arguing with her publisher husband Robert (Craig), whose own history of extramarital indiscretions has come to light. Robert also happens to be the oldest friend of Jerry, who was best man at their wedding and is also married. Shifting ahead to later that spring, Jerry attempts to come clean about the affair to Robert, only to be crushed by the discovery that he has known about it for some time.
Occasionally taking a brief step forward in time before jumping back to previous years, Pinter traces the bloom and wilt of the affair, from Emma’s firm decision to end it through to the stolen moment, at a party in 1968, when Jerry first declares his adoration. In these episodes we see how memory can be an unreliable witness, even without the lies disseminated throughout. Each point of the romantic triangle has a different perspective on the same experience.
Pinter’s writing has the incisiveness of a knife blade, requiring a director and actors tough enough not to flinch from the task, yet with the sensitivity to expose the passion and even the compassion in the text. Those needs are more than met here.
Craig, last seen on Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman in 2009’s A Steady Rain, showed his dynamic stage chops even in a mediocre play. With a jewel like this one, he’s magnificent. Dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, with his silver mane raked back, he looks the epitome of the high-end London literary scene – like Julian Barnes with a kickass trainer. Leonine and intensely physical as an actor, Craig appears to be prowling even when standing still. His masculine self-possession can signify danger – an accusatory stare that he fixes on his petrified wife before moving in to reclaim her sexually is terrifying in its subdued violence. But the characterization’s emotional rawness is no less transfixing, conveying both the wounds and the rage beneath the prideful composure.
Craig gets some of Pinter’s sharpest writing in a savagely funny scene where he discusses the male rituals surrounding a game of squash, his exclusion of Emma carrying the force of a slap; or when he gives a ferocious account of the arduous process of launching a successful novel. In both cases, of course, he’s really talking about something else altogether. The latter conversation is an exchange over lunch with an increasingly apprehensive Jerry. This is one of a handful of scenes in which Nichols plays up the underlying homoeroticism in their friendship, with Craig leaning in like a canoodling lover on the banquette before pulling back to vent his indirect anger.
Watching Craig and Weisz – an offstage husband and wife – explore the unique capacity of a married couple for mutual cruelty adds another fascinating layer. In her Broadway debut, Weisz makes her character’s pain incandescent. Her Emma is an unhappy beauty who can be emotionally transparent one minute, brittle and unreadable the next. The actress brings a deliberate stilted, somewhat tremulous quality to the performance that is perfect for Pinter; her line readings suggest Emma’s awareness that any ill-chosen word might detonate a bomb. Like her male co-stars, Weisz leaves her character’s motivations open to interpretation, which makes this production of Betrayal keep playing out in your head days after seeing it.
The discovery for American audiences, however, will be Spall’s sensational work. Jerry is arguably the only character touched by guilt, but what’s more devastating is his almost clueless confusion. His discomfort, whenever his own unseen wife or children come up, reveals how helpless he is to control his feelings. We know from the opening scene, long after their relationship has ended, that his sense of ownership with Emma remains a festering sore, albeit bandaged in civility. That gives every step in the dismantlement of their love a searing poignancy. The ecstatic expression on Spall’s face after the adulterers’ first kiss is heartbreaking, because unlike Jerry, we have witnessed the hurt that’s coming.
Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 5)
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Rafe Spall, Stephen DeRosa
Director: Mike Nichols
Playwright: Harold Pinter
Set designer: Ian MacNeil
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Music: James Murphy
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Video designer: Finn Ross
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, S.D. Wagner, John Johnson
Presented by Scott Rudin, Barry Diller, Eli Bush, Jon B. Platt, Roger Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Roy Furman, John Gore, Stephanie P. McClelland, Sonia Friedman/Tulchin Bartner, The Araca Group, Ruth Hendel, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth
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