There are three principal characters, unfixed points in an adulterous romantic triangle, in Harold Pinter’s 1978 play “Betrayal,” now being revived to thrilling — and chilling — effect on Broadway. But there are just two chairs onstage for the duration of the show.
The choice is not incidental. The two men and one woman in the play are engaged in a long, painful game of musical chairs (or perhaps, less metaphorically, beds), during which one of them will always be on the outside looking in — the subject of the titular infidelity. But it’s never entirely clear at any point who is the odd man, or woman, out.
Starring Tom Hiddleston (known for playing Loki across various Marvel movies), Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox, the production, directed with a soft but searching intensity by Jamie Lloyd, is simply exquisite on every level: Acting, direction and design perfectly align to excavate the shiver-inducing layers of what is probably Pinter’s most accessible — and certainly his most popular — full-length drama. (This is the third Broadway revival.)
The play’s structural novelty is by now well-known. We begin at the ending, or rather some time after the ending, of the affair that drives the narrative, and move (mostly) backwards in time, to the moment that sparked it, several years before. Delving into the unchangeable past, Pinter anatomizes, with an almost clinical detachment that is nevertheless infused with a bleak compassion, the progressive disintegration of three once-loving relationships.
In the opening scene Emma (Ashton) and Jerry (Cox) discuss with just hints of discomfort the ending of their seven-year-long affair, an ending already in the past. She reveals that she has learned that her affair with Jerry was matched by her husband Robert’s own extramarital dalliances.
Soon after this meeting, in a scene that springs the first of several surprises, Robert, a publisher, and Jerry, a literary agent, share their own slightly tense but still nominally congenial meeting. Jerry admits to the affair, but Robert coolly parries this confession by revealing that he had known about it for some years. He kept Jerry, who was once, by both of their accounts, his best friend, in the dark about his knowledge — a betrayal of their friendship of course, and also a form of insidious, quietly malicious revenge.
The sad, unsettling beauty of “Betrayal” is how Pinter explores the many infidelities and disloyalties that spring from the initial one. And the actors, all superb, reveal with remarkable delicacy how deeply their sense of these betrayals — those committed as well as those endured — gnaw quietly at the characters’ belief in their own, and each other’s, humanity. “Betrayal,” with its clipped, mostly short scenes, unfolds like a series of softly jolting revelations that give us glimpses into the fragility and the flaws of even the most closely held and loving relationships.
Lloyd’s production is as handsome as, well, the three exceptionally attractive stars, who might have leapt from the pages of a current fashion magazine: Hiddleston’s Robert, his long hair sweeping back to reach the collar of his slim-cut black suit; Cox’s Jerry, in slightly more casual but no less Instagram-ready skinny jeans and jacket in muted tones; Ashton’s Emma in the latest in high-waisted, wide-legged denim and a billowy blue peasant blouse.
Lloyd, not incidentally, keeps all three onstage at all times, necessitating no costume changes despite the passing years, but more pointedly emphasizing that, even though virtually all of the scenes take place between just two of the three central characters, the third is ever-present in their minds and in their emotional interactions: a possibly vengeful ghost looking on, or merely looking lost, hovering at the back or the side of the stage.
The set is dominated by an imposing wall of light-colored marble, which occasionally slides forward or back to indicate changes in location that are otherwise only minimally indicated in designer Soutra Gilmour’s settings. Another clever touch from Lloyd and Gilmour: the revolve that allows the characters to seem to be forever warily circling each other, as the relationships between are constantly, unsettlingly changing.
The production, and the play, are so perfectly composed that to highlight individual scenes is almost impossible. But two are emblematic of the complex emotional currents that make it such an enduring work. The first takes place in Venice, when Robert inadvertently stumbles upon evidence of — or at least a suggestion of — his wife’s infidelity. Shamed and, presumably, weary of her own guilt and deception, Emma simply confesses the truth.
Hiddleston’s Robert, heretofore depicted as a walking, talking stiff upper lip, gently melts into a puddle of tears, as Emma puts a comforting hand on his arm. But they scarcely look at each other even during this most traumatic of moments: Locked in their own individual chambers of horror, they mostly stare straight ahead, finding only the barest of words to confront this brutal revelation.
In another arresting, blackly funny scene, back in London Robert invites Jerry to lunch, plying him with comical amounts of white wine as Robert makes bland small talk about business and the Venice vacation. Despite his new knowledge of his friend’s and his wife’s relationship, he chooses not to play the outraged husband, instead offering teasing, softly aggressive repartee, preferring to allow Jerry to squirm in discomfort — clearly something is wrong, but what? — and to allow him to compound his disloyalty by continuing the affair. Hiddleston brings out the playful malice in Robert’s little game of cat and mouse, while Cox evinces the antsy discomfort of a man who doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know. It’s another terrific moment in which the dual meanings of the word “betrayal” — to evince disloyalty, but also to reveal something kept hidden — hover tensely in the air.
Even with its non-chronological structure, “Betrayal” is a conventional play by Pinter’s standards. The pauses seem perfectly natural, and no one onstage engages in any distinctly sociopathic or psychopathic behavior. There’s scarcely a whiff of the famous Pinterian “menace” spritzing the scenes (save for a brief mention of Robert physically abusing Emma). And yet Lloyd — whose company produced a series of Pinter plays at the Pinter Theatre in the West End, of which this has been called the “culmination” — understands that even when the playwright is seemingly at his most naturalistic, Pinter is exploring with uncommon clarity the dark, irrational impulses, the cruelties and emotional violence, that underlie so much human behavior, even among superficially “civilized” and successful characters like these, which connects them to the more outlandish specimens in many of his other plays.
“Betrayal” suggests, in its dispassionate way, both the necessity of human attachments — all three characters remain deeply connected even after the shock of Jerry and Emma’s affair has altered their relationships to each other — but also, of course, the limits of those attachments. And while the title has many meanings, perhaps the saddest is the idea that the greatest betrayal all three characters commit is the betrayal of their better selves; this suggests that there may be no such thing as a better self. There is only the flawed, confused, unfathomable self.
“Betrayal” opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Thurs., Sept. 5, 2019.
Creative: Written by Harold Pinter; Composition: Ben Ringham and Max Ringham; Directed by Jamie Lloyd; Scenic Design by Soutra Gilmour; Costume Design by Soutra Gilmour; Lighting Design by Jon Clark; Sound Design by Ben Ringham and Max Ringham.
Producers: Ambassador Theatre Group, The Jamie Lloyd Company, Benjamin Lowy Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Glass Half Full Productions, Annapurna Theatre, Hunter Arnold, Burnt Umber Productions, Rashad V. Chambers, Eilene Davidson Productions, KFF Productions, Dominick LaRuffa Jr., Antonio Marion, Stephanie P. McClelland and Richard Winkler/Alan Shorr.
Cast: Zawe Ashton, Charlie Cox, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Arnold.