Written by Harold Pinter; directed by Maria Aitken; scenic design, Allen Moyer; costume design, Nancy Brennan; lighting design, Philip S. Rosenberg; original music and sound design, John Gromada
Cast in order of appearance:
Emma, Gretchen Egolf; Jerry, Alan Cox; Robert, Mark H. Dold; waiter, Luis Negrón
Performances and tickets:
Now through December 9, Huntington Theatre Company, B.U. Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass.; tickets start at $25, available by calling the Box Office at 617-266-0800 or online at www.huntingtontheatre.org
There’s more power in what isn’t said than in what is in Harold Pinter’s achingly ironic memory play Betrayal currently receiving a taut revival at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston (through December 9). Under the deft direction of one-time Pinter protégé Maria Aitken (Private Lives, Educating Rita and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps at the Huntington), Betrayal subtly reveals, through brilliant subtext and by moving backwards in time, feelings and thoughts that remain painfully unexpressed over the course of a seven-year relationship.
At the beginning of the play we see Emma (an enigmatic Gretchen Egolf) and Jerry (a high-strung Alan Cox) sharing an awkward drink at a British pub, obviously uncomfortable following a breakup. Soon we learn that they had been carrying on a deep and long-term love affair, sharing a flat every Thursday afternoon despite the fact that Emma’s husband, Robert (a tight-jawed Mark H. Dold), was not only Jerry’s publisher but also his best friend. As Emma and Jerry reacquaint and reminisce, they nervously engage in random small talk, exchanging conflicting memories and shards of experiences that will later resurface and take on greater meaning.
This perhaps final meeting between Emma and Jerry sets in motion a reverse chronology of fragmented flashbacks that reveal the web of lies – and deliberate omissions – that led to their estrangement. From wounded emptiness to strained civility to pleasant banter to passionate beginnings, Betrayal grows more painful and poignant with each peeled back layer of deceit. Scathing insights from the past expose unexpected twists that ultimately leave the audience wondering just which of the three is the biggest liar – and whose deceptions (of self and others) are the most damaging and tragic.
Aitken has directed her cast masterfully, leading them to deliver Pinter’s spare dialog and non-verbal nuances with an ease that seems completely natural. Often the playwright’s precisely timed pauses can feel off-putting and mechanical, but not here. Egolf, Cox and Dold all flesh out vibrant characters whose tightly wrapped emotions are so real and painfully close to the surface that they can almost be seen pulsating in their eyes and at their temples. All three are desperately in need of human connection, but inevitably their inabilities to speak openly and genuinely leave them all hardened and alone.
Allen Moyer’s inventive scenic design makes literal the notion that Pinter writes in snapshots. Scenes change with the expanding and collapsing eye of a camera lens, revealing stark shadow box images from the trio’s past. Sparsely furnished rooms and unadorned walls suggest the kind of selective memory that focuses only on certain relevant details – contrasting antique and second-hand beds, a black and white living room set, an imposing office chair, a favorite tablecloth and curtains. The effect is to turn the audience into voyeurs, glimpsing through a narrow peephole the hidden truths, secrets and lies that have led to such fractured lives.