It's hard to imagine Harold Pinter's Betrayal being given a better production than the one currently at the Denver Center -- an elegant set, excellent actors -- but somehow, though I enjoyed the experience of watching it, in the final analysis, the play left me cold. Perhaps this was because I'd spent the afternoon listening to panelists yelling at each other about the Middle East at the University of Colorado's World Affairs Conference, and I wasn't in the mood for the thin, rarefied air of a Pinter play and couldn't bring myself to care much about the fine points and complexities of upper-middle-class adultery. Perhaps it was something lacking in the director's conception or the performances. Or perhaps it was the play itself.
I've always been a Pinter fan. I like the clarity and rhythm of his dialogue, the ironic humor, the damped-down passion of his characters, the ambiguous sense of menace he conveys. Betrayal's story is told backward -- a pair of onetime lovers meets two years after breaking up; the action proceeds by steps back through time, providing vignettes of the affair and ending with the mutual first gesture of love -- but even so, it doesn't really strike me as all that deep or complex. Critics talk about the brilliance of that reverse movement, the way it enables audiences to come to a slow and ever-deepening understanding of the play's events and how it causes resonance to accrete to Pinter's words and ideas. But although it's true that all of the scenes we're shown are shaped and colored by the lovers' memories of them, this story is banal whether it unfolds backward or forward.
On its most successful level, Betrayal does illuminate the dance between men and women, the many ways in which we betray each other, the elliptical nature of communication, the way meaning and significance can be tucked away behind apparently unrelated sentences and the colorations of the silences between words. Also, some of the dialogue is wonderfully funny.
But there's not much here that's universal. Emma, Jerry and Robert are members of a small and specific type and class, and even within it, the three are very strange fish indeed. Jerry is a literary agent; Emma is married to his best friend, Robert, a publisher. By the time his marriage with Emma finally collapses, Robert is also carrying on an affair; Jerry himself is married to a doctor -- who may be cheating on him; and Emma is going out for drinks with an author -- represented by Jerry and published by Robert -- after breaking up with Jerry.
The play runs an hour and a half without intermission. The first few scenes are amusing, but by the end, the prevailing feelings are of grief, loss and anger -- and perhaps of something nastier moving below the surface. Are the members of this trio incapable of loving fully? Is Emma a kind of surrogate through whom Jerry and Robert express the love they feel for each other? Or is there just less here than meets the eye?
With her strong, expressive features, Annette Helde is perfect for a Pinter role. You're fascinated by her silences, because every thought and feeling her character has is reflected on her face and expressed through her body. She is the only member of the group who appears to feel genuine passion. Jamie Horton, a tense, tight Jerry, has some excellent moments, particularly at the beginning of the play, but his later delivery is less focused. John Hutton's Robert should be far more intense: We're told he is capable of violence, and at least once, Helde flinches when he approaches her. Perhaps Hutton's relaxed mien and quietly reasonable voice are meant to project a suppressed menace, but for much of the play, he just seems oddly -- and, given the circumstances, inappropriately -- laid-back. Pinter's dialogue presents a challenge: No matter how odd or evasive a particular sentence may seem, the actor's intention while delivering it needs to be absolutely clean. Helde manages this, but Horton and Hutton are sometimes muddier. As a waiter, Richard Liccardo provides a refreshing turn that reminds us of Robert's earlier diatribe about laughing, irresponsible Italians. Certainly, when it comes to adultery, we can hope the Italians are having more fun.
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