Moving with the precision of a music box, the Huntington Theatre Company production of Harold Pinter's 1978 play "Betrayal" examines the layers of duplicity and manipulation that bind a trio of upper class Londoners: Emma, her husband Robert, and his best friend Jerry, with whom Emma has had a seven-year affair.
At the Boston University Theatre through December 9th, the play follows the three over nine years, beginning in 1977 and then stepping back in time through eight more scenes to 1968, when Jerry first seduces Emma.
"Betrayal" is one of the classic works by Pinter, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, three years before his death.
Performed in about 75 minutes without intermission, Pinter's social satire begins with a scene of utter disillusionment, as Jerry and Emma meet in a pub. Seated in an elegant, art deco booth, the two pick over the long-cooled ashes of their affair and confront the dissolution of a marriage and a friendship after revelations of mutual infidelity and deceit.
Directed by Maria Aitken, who as a young actress was directed by Pinter, the production seamlessly synchronizes sets by Allen Moyer, costumes by Nancy Brennan and lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg.
Emma's wardrobe evolves with her life, from the pants suit of a career woman to the mod pink chiffon mini dress she wears at the party that she and Robert host in 1968. The sound design and original music by John Gromada cleverly dovetails the characters' changes in style and circumstances over the years. Meandering contemporary chamber music accompanies set changes until the 1968 party scene, introduced by the grinding chords of Deep Purple's heavy metal megahit, "Smoke on the Water."
The simple flat where Emma and Jerry meet echoes the banality of their tryst, despite Emma's attempt to make it a home. Elated by her romance with Jerry, she brings him an embroidered tablecloth from Venice, where she has confessed her affair to Robert in their brocade-lined hotel room. Later, Jerry visits the couple in their living room, a showcase of over-the-top décor.
Heightening Pinter's sub-theme of detection, cutouts in a black stage curtain frame each scene as it closes, suggesting the lens of a camera taking prying snapshots.
The wizardly staging concentrates each elaborately crafted set in just one part of the stage. Each is a concentrated miniature suspended in a vast space, a visual effect that echoes Pinter's use of spare language and frequent pauses as his three characters circle around one another in their speech.
Revolutionary in its day and now commonplace in the plays of David Mamet, Sam Shepard and others of their generation, Pinter's technique heightens the unease of his characters and distances his plays from the illusion of naturalism, goals he shared with his revered mentor and fellow Nobel Prize recipient Samuel Beckett.
Convoluted exchanges hint at the inner contortions of Emma, Jerry and Robert. "I don't think we don't love each other," Emma tells Jerry in their final tryst at the flat. "I think I thought you knew," Robert says to Jerry, who is dismayed to learn that the affair is no secret.
Each scene is a microclimate with an emotional temperature that varies from frigid to medium cool. Yet the production's expert actors render the moments of real emotion that simmer below the smooth artifice of their characters.
Mark H. Dold is a lean and wired Robert. His gaunt face registers clenched rage as he confronts his wife. Lunching with Jerry, he directs his anger toward their waiter (Luis Negrón). Dold's voice projects disdain as he conveys more interest in resuming squash games with Jerry than in restoring his marriage. And he persuasively conveys Robert's sole experience of exaltation-a morning walk by himself on the Venetian island of Torcello.
Gretchen Egolf embodies Emma's contradictions. A tall, steely blond with frayed edges, Egolf's Emma expresses muted yearning in her furtive hints at wanting more from Jerry. Alan Cox renders Jerry with the disheveled ease of the roué and the aloofness of a married man who is not about to give up his agreeable life for his mistress. Disturbed to learn that Robert has known about the affair for years, the most emotion he musters is irritation.
This elegant and witty production mines the full potential of Pinter's acerbic play to stir the eye, ear and mind if not the heart.
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