Juliette Binoche in Betrayal(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Juliette Binoche in Betrayal
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's curious how, over time, a playwright who initially seems iconoclastic comes eventually to register as thoroughly mainstream. Harold Pinter, whose works struck audiences as unique when lights began going up on them four decades back, can now be seen as marching in the ranks of traditional British drama.

Certainly Betrayal, being given a stark and stunning production at the Roundabout's new American Airlines Theatre, falls right into line with other stiff-upper-lip examinations of marital fidelity and infidelity. If, for instance, Pinter's three-character exercise recalls Noël Coward's Brief Encounter more now than it ever did, that's not coincidental; it's in the very English air Coward breathed and Pinter breathes to this day.

The Pinter piece is famous for covering, in reverse chronological order, nine years in the life of a married couple, Robert and Emma, and their best friend, Jerry. To be completely accurate, three of the play's nine terse scenes take place later than the scenes they follow, but the beginning, middle, end, and epilogue of Emma's clandestine affair with Jerry while Robert suffers in relative silence unfold back to front--which might invite the comment that, were Pinter to have set his play out front to back, there would have been nothing new in what he has to say.

Actually, there was nothing really new about Pinter's structure in 1978, when the play was first produced. Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman had already tested it in their unsuccessful Merrily We Roll Along, and J. B. Priestley had taken a similar tack in Time and the Conways. (More recently, Alan Ayckbourn fiddled with the idea in Communicating Doors.)

Then again, there is such a thing as putting old wine in new bottles; at that, Pinter is a world-class vintner. In upending the Robert-Emma-Jerry story, he provides the audience with information they can use while watching the unraveling episodes. Knowing that the extra-marital farrago before them comes to a sad, vacant end puts the audience in the position of being ahead of the characters, though this is not an invitation to render judgment. (One of Pinter's strengths is that he isn't at all judgmental--or, put another way, is equally judgmental of all three characters.) The playwright's intention is to give the audience a strong whiff of the rue that underlies these dicey liaisons. His approach is also calculated to lend a certain sense of soothing fun; for instance, an audience member is invited to think: 'Right now, Robert knows that Jerry is sleeping with Emma, but Jerry doesn't know he knows.'

Perhaps the chief beauty of Pinter's play is its final, exquisite image. That's the moment when Jerry, having caught Emma in her bedroom during a party, declares his love for her; he stops her as she's trying to flee, and she turns inconclusively towards him. The rest of the play flows from this freeze-frame instant, which may be the most crucial example of what has become known in theater circles as a Pinter pause. To his immense credit, Pinter is not attempting to make a grandiose point about the inexorability of destiny. On the contrary, he's saying something about how the moments of our lives hold within them opportunities to choose. Indeed, Pinter may be making the most significant statement in contemporary theater history about the unending repercussions of choice.

That electric moment--a pause so charged that agitated ions can almost be seen to dart about the theater--is riveting. It's the culmination of similar moments in Betrayal. What makes Pinter important as a playwright is not that he has introduced and popularized minimalism; he merely elaborates on what Samuel Beckett inaugurated. Rather, his contribution is in the clarity with which he observes people speaking to one another--or not speaking, holding their tongues while their thoughts blindly rummage around. What he's done in an anxious age is locate that anxiety in the terse sentences people often utter, not to mention the silences between those utterances. He recognizes unknowability and its chilling effect on relationships. He also notices with a kind of adamantine finality that, in any set of friendships, betrayals don't necessarily come singly but in dizzying multiples.

John Slattery and Liev Schreiberin Betrayal(Photo: Joan Marcus)
John Slattery and Liev Schreiber
in Betrayal
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
What happens to the three focal characters in Betrayal is that, after the bedroom meeting, Jerry and Emma fall in love with one another and take an afternoon-assignation flat in a part of London where none of their literary set are likely to venture. (Jerry is an agent, Robert is a publisher, Emma eventually runs a gallery.) Emma only manages to keep the situation from Robert for so long, but leads Jerry to believe that the truth has never come out. After Emma gives birth to a son whom she is certain is Robert's, she and Jerry fizzle. Not until two years later does Emma learn that Robert, too, has been unfaithful, at which point she comes to Jerry for solace.

This plot summary may have the trappings of soap opera, but Pinter layers the play with the complexities and ambivalence of lives lived by intelligent, driven people. And he supplies theatrical meat for the right actors to chew under the right director. No quarrels here with the paces through which David Leveaux puts Juliette Binoche, Liev Schreiber, and John Slattery. No complaints, either with Rob Howell's sets or his black, gray, tan, and maroon costumes. The world Howell creates is exactly right: It's a large, all-purpose, off-white room with three doors, two narrow windows, and lots of molding delineating lots of panels. When Robert and Emma go to Venice, the largest up-stage panel is slid back so that a palazzo crumbling nearby can be spotted, with shifting lights from a canal reflected upon it.

One of Leveaux's most striking images occurs at the end of this scene. Emma has just revealed her guilty secret. Robert, having quailed before it, returns to the window and stares out; Emma gazes in the opposite direction with eyes as dark as well bottoms. Of course, it's Binoche and Slattery who take these indelible poses. Throughout the play's quick sequences the two of them and Schreiber provide other shockingly recognizable tableaux. One is the above-mentioned look that Binoche and Schreiber exchange at play's black-out, as the only light piercing the darkness blares through the open bedroom door and throws the two actors into chiaroscuro relief.

Though this Betrayal is being enacted by two Americans and a French woman (Binoche in her New York stage debut), it seems English throughout; dialect coach Kate Wilson seems to have acquitted herself admirably. Though the men do well by their English accents and Binoche is proficient at sounding as if she has at least lived in England for some time, the three of them do allow themselves fleeting emotional displays that an all-British cast might have stifled. Binoche has a profoundly touching moment when, in that sparsely furnished Kilburn flat she's sharing with Robert, she shows us Emma succumbing to sorrow as she realizes that Robert doesn't remember something she holds dear about their life together. For his part, Slattery gives in to tears of frustration and alarm in the Venice section. Schreiber handles the last scene as if Jerry's life depended on it, his combustible feelings almost lighting up the shadow-enshrouded stage.

In other words, the ensemble is flawless (Mark Lotito is a proficient, understanding waiter in his one scene). It's mandatory that actors be able to fill Pinter's silences with inklings of inner life, and this is doubly called for with Leveaux at the helm, because he frequently asks his players not to move for long periods of time. Binoche, Schreiber, and Slattery are up to all challenges. When a plain blue scrim across which Woody Allen-like titles are projected rises for the first time, Binoche is seated alone, feet planted on the ground. Not saying a word, she allows a succession of unspoken thoughts to play across the flat planes of her troubled face. (She's introduced on a turntable that, by the way, revolves counter-clockwise.) Binoche's Emma is a figure burdened with the effects of her decisions. She's sometimes girlish but always on the verge of letting whatever conflicted state she's in show through.

Liev Schreiber in Betrayal(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Liev Schreiber in Betrayal
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Schreiber, an aggressively passive Hamlet earlier this year, conjures an Englishman who is also aggressively passive. Jerry's manner may be clipped, but, as Schreiber sees it, that's because he's so preoccupied with tamping down torrential feelings. In Leveaux's directorial scheme, there's a good deal of cross-legged sitting while the characters suppress and/or edit their instincts. Lanky and handsome, his eyes narrowed and mouth taut, Schreiber conveys the constraint in Jerry's personality, and then lets everything rip at the ending that's really the beginning. As the wronged Robert, who continues to like his best friend despite himself (more observant writing from Pinter about the allowances people are prepared to make), Slattery uses his physical leanness as if it were an affliction--as if Robert's long-term denial is shrinking him. If there is such a thing as puny gallantry, this actor embodies it here.

Some 40 years ago, at just about the time Pinter was discovering his genius, Mike Nichols and Elaine May were discovering theirs. In a knee-slapping early sketch, they mocked uptight English romances by having a dentist and his patient confess their ardor during an examination, thereby demonstrating that parody can have a devastating effect on what it parodies: it's often difficult to take the original seriously ever again. It has to be said that there are moments in Betrayal when Pinter sounds amusingly like Nichols and May. But, as Leveaux masterminds things, there are long stretches when the play gets so directly to the heart of the matter that the audience itself must take a Pinteresque pause.