British playwright Harold Pinter once confessed that his ear for dialogue is something of an acquired talent: He gleans some of his material from conversations overheard in bars and restaurants. In that respect, he's not much different from many other playwrights.
However, what distinguishes Pinter from the horde of minutiae-obsessed writers is his ability to artfully arrange his observations about life to illuminate particular human truths. Punctuating his characters' dialogue with scripted pauses and silences, his highly structured plays become detailed road maps for actors, virtually eliminating any need for psychological guesswork.
In Betrayal, Pinter adds a different twist to his masterful technique. The play begins with the last episode between Jerry (Scott Bellot) and Emma (Jack Baker), who decide to meet in a restaurant two years after their long-standing love affair ends. Shortly after that tender reunion, Jerry visits Emma's husband, Robert (Terrance Shaw), to confess his adultery. To Jerry's surprise, he learns that Robert has known about the tryst for years. Over the next seven scenes, the play works backward in time to reconstruct an intricate, multilayered tale of deception.
The intriguing drama is currently playing at CityStage Ensemble under the able direction of Christopher Leo, whose decision to emphasize the play's humorous elements keeps the two-hour production from degenerating into a tawdry soap opera. Nevertheless, the performers sometimes insert inappropriate pauses of their own, engaging in impromptu emoting sessions that dilute much of the play's underlying menace.
Part of the problem lies with the actors' interpretation of Pinter's structure, which often proves confusing to American actors. Schooled in a tradition that champions truthful, visceral behavior on stage, American performers often insert unscripted pauses in Pinter's dialogue in order to "motivate" and "feel" their way through a scene. But doing so sometimes rejects the playwright's intent in favor of an actor's caprice, resulting in portrayals that simply aren't believable.
The ponderous moments and pregnant pauses don't prevent this from being an entertaining production, however. Baker is an appealing Emma, exuding a confident sexuality in her scenes with Jerry that contrasts nicely with the all-but-dead relationship she endures with her husband. And as the literary agent who talks business with Robert while simultaneously winning his wife's adoration, Bellot is an appropriate mixture of playful banter and sterile pedantry.
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By contrast, Shaw's stiff, awkward portrayal makes us wonder whether Robert's reactions to the adulterous goings-on spring from genuine surprise or cold calculation. In his first scene with Jerry, for example, Robert holds all of the cards: He knows that his wife has been unfaithful to him and with whom. But rather than transform his benign conversation with Jerry into a high-stakes power game, Shaw drones through the scene, and we slowly lose interest in his character for the remainder of the play.
Nevertheless, this production is an entertaining potboiler, due mostly to the vibrant tete-a-tete between Baker and Bellot. In order to attain the kind of success that productions of Pinter's plays routinely enjoy elsewhere, though, Leo and his actors might want to remove all of their unscripted pauses and put them in a more appropriate place: at the end of the play.
Betrayal, through February 15 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, 433-8082.