Broadway Continues Its Love Affair With Betrayal — I Try to Understand It
Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox, and Zawe Ashton open Jamie Lloyd's West End production at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Harold Pinter's Betrayal has averaged one Broadway production a decade since its 1980 debut — which means there must be something about this stoic British drama of lies and love triangles that stirs the American soul. I personally could not tell you what that is, but I get the sense that if I were to ever feel moved by a Betrayal, Jamie Lloyd's crisp, uncluttered revival at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre was my best shot.
Fresh from an acclaimed run on London's West End, Lloyd's brilliant cast features Tom Hiddleston as Robert (a book publisher); Charlie Cox as Robert's best friend Jerry (a literary agent); and Zawe Ashton as Robert's wife and Jerry's illicit lover of seven years, Emma (completing the artistic trio as a gallery owner). It's not a story of good people doing bad things, or even bad people doing bad things. It's simply average humans loving each other terribly, and in a Pinteresque twist of drama, there's no drama at all — perceptible drama, that is. Plenty of emotions and tortured calculations are bubbling beneath the surface in each corner of this triangle of betrayal. And while I can't honestly say I care what those calculations render, it takes mastery of both acting and direction to have such effusive inner monologues ring out so clearly.
The story starts at the end and works its way backward in time, beginning with a stilted reunion between Emma and Jerry. Their affair is long over, but Jerry still prides himself on how discreetly they went about their business for seven years — a streak Emma tells him she broke last night by telling Robert about the affair in response to news about his own multiyear infidelity. Don't get comfortable yet — that's a lie, too. Jerry schedules an apologetic meeting with Robert and learns that Emma actually told her husband about the affair four years ago. Rather than confronting Jerry, he just tucked that information away and continued his frivolous lunch dates with his supposed best friend. "Never played squash though," says Robert, as if sharing a gym locker were the pinnacle of intimacy. For these taciturn people, perhaps it is.
And so we begin the journey back to where it all began, seeing each step that built this layered mess of mutual disloyalty. Rarely do all three characters share a scene, but in an inspired directorial choice by Lloyd, the odd person out lingers in the background, haunting every word spoken, every feeling suppressed, and every road (not) taken. It also opens up an abundance of visual opportunities for the design team — the clean sparseness of Soutra Gilmour's set lifting the play's mundane events to an ethereal realm, while lighting designer Jon Clark does some beautiful work with shadows (Emma's lanky specter at one point hovers over her two lovers).
Does the play warrant this higher metaphorical plane? I'm not convinced it does. Inspired by Pinter's own seven-year affair with journalist Joan Bakewell, Betrayal comes across as an eloquent personal meditation on how love and deception can coexist. Aside from the fallibility of memory that Pinter accentuates (did Jerry play with Emma's daughter in his kitchen or hers?), the play deals only with literal events played out in surgically constructed conversations that epitomize the civilian art of talking around an issue. Upon further study, I'm sure mountains of subtext can be excavated from each interaction, but in the moment, they offer little reason to emotionally buy in.
And maybe that's just how Betrayal has to be. After all, the explosive oversexed Betrayal Broadway saw in 2013 was certainly not the solution. So in the spirit of the transparency that Robert, Jerry, and Emma do not practice, know going in that if you want to get into bed with Betrayal, you're going to have to do the bulk of the work.