Shows Worth Seeing:
By Harold Pinter
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
This much-heralded production of Pinter’s 1978 love-triangle play, starring the hunky James Bond actor Daniel Craig and his real-life wife Rachel Weisz, has provoked a nasty rash of dismissive reviews. I’m not exactly sure why. The temptation to topple Hollywood idols of this magnitude is always strong, I suppose. Then there’s the fact that Betrayal is a great, difficult author’s only boulevard work, which naturally prompts critics who are speechless about the rest of his oeuvre to show off by blustering about the “right” way to do this one. But all that is a sideshow. What matters is that if you care about this sly and subtle drama (and if you can afford it) you should see this version directed by Mike Nichols, because the acting is extraordinary and the reading of the play unusually acute.
Betrayal is, famously, a tale told backwards. More or less. It’s a series of nine scenes that begin in 1977, two years after an affair has ended between Jerry and Emma (wife of Jerry’s best friend Robert), and end the night the affair commenced in 1968. Pinter uses the reverse time sequence and his gift for sparse and chiseled dialogue to pose sharp questions about who in this threesome knew what when, and it’s always great fun for spectators to play detective, listening closely for all the lies. At least one major lie is tucked into each scene, along with innumerable smaller ones, and clarifying them is the key to revealing the play’s depths. A good production leads its audience to seek bigger secrets beneath the little ones.
The arrangement of veils and subterfuges in Betrayal is (as always in Pinter) extremely British. Meaning and intention are hidden beneath multiple layers of indirection and obliqueness, which keep things superficially courteous while masking complex mechanisms of deception and self-deception. Craig, Weisz and Rafe Spall, who plays Jerry, are wonderful at negotiating these deceptions without simplifying their characters. All have impressive resources of deflection and avoidance, which leave the three figures looking like intelligent and self-aware people while also clarifying that they have deceived themselves as well as each other for nine years.
Particularly illuminating is the way this threesome handles the story’s homoerotic shadow: one of the inconvenient truths behind the affair is that Robert and Jerry have always liked each other more than either ever liked Emma. A veritable glossary of blinks, pauses, half-nods, mirthless grins, and eye-aversions is deployed to make both the fact of this attraction and its unthinkability in the characters’ world equally clear.
A dozen years ago, Betrayal had another major New York production, directed by David Leveaux, starring Liev Schreiber, Juliette Binoche and John Slattery—all smart, talented, searching actors who nevertheless left the edges of these characters far hazier, in my view. It’s no coincidence that Schreiber and Slattery were American and Binoche was French, whereas Craig, Weisz and Spall are all Brits. Some sensitivities do come with mother’s milk, unpatriotic as it may seem for me to say so. Leveaux’s production also struck me as weighed down by a stylistic emphasis on chilly austerity; its climactic moments, as I remember, were all frozen poses and stares.
The one advantage Leveaux’s version did have over Nichols’s was its design, which at least managed to make its locations plausible and its people look like the casual intellectuals they’re supposed to be. The set and costumes in Nichols’s show often look borrowed from a Bond movie. Robert and Emma would never choose such a ridiculously flashy Venice hotel room, for instance, and Robert and Jerry, a literary agent and a publisher, wouldn’t dress for work in such swanky suits. It’s a testimony to the strength of the performances that this bizarre miscalculation didn’t ruin the show.