Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Harold Pinter's Betrayal
Harold Pinter is one of the most respected playwrights of our day. He has written 29 plays with some in the absurdist style. He has also written 21 screenplays for some of the best films of modern day. Many critics believe that Betrayal is his absurdist masterpiece. No doubt it is an accessible absurdist magnum opus. Noted playwright David Hare says "Pinter did what Auden said a poet should do. He cleaned the gutters of the English language so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly. He writes in certain expectations of the unexpected. In sum this tribute from one writer to another: you never know what the hell's coming next".
I saw the original production of Betrayal at the Royal National in 1979 with Michael Gambon, Daniel Massey and Penelope Wilton in the leads. The American premiere was also in the same year with Raul Julia, Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner at the Trafalgar Theatre. Peter Hall's production ran 170 performances in New York. There have been many revivals in the U.K. over the years, the most recent being Peter Hall's production starring Janie Dee, Aden Gillett and Hugh Speer. It is currently touring the providences in that country. There was also a brilliant revival at the American Airlines Theatre several years ago with Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Juliette Binoche.
Betrayal is less cryptic than most many of Pinter's absurdist plays. The plot involves Robert (Charles Shaw Robinson) and Emma (Carrie Paff) and their long time friend Jerry (Christopher Marshall). The name of the play says it all. Emma and Jerry betray Robert, Robert betrays Jerry and Emma and Robert betray each other. The play starts in the present, when Emma has had a seven year affair with Robert's best friend Jerry. Beginning at the end of the affair, each scene of this compelling drama moves backwards in time to the fateful moment when the infidelity began. This is an enthralling study of adultery that only a masterful playwright could envision.
Betrayal moves backwards in time with the ebb and flow of Emma and Jerry's affair in less than 90 minutes in this no intermission production. The playwright coordinates an emotional mix of inaccessible, anxious people against a down-to-earth backdrop where Pinter's sparse language often disguises deeper divergence. Through their reminiscing, old truths become falsehoods and falsehoods become new truths as everyone's secrets are revealed.
Director Tom Ross's fine revival has three excellent actors managing to grow younger as the play progresses. They also are able to discard their layers of guilt as they become younger and fresher. Charles Shaw Robinson (Homebody/Kabul at Berkeley Rep, The Weir at the Aurora) plays Robert. His brittle tight-lipped speech is excellent at the beginning and he emerges a chipper young man at the end. He displays a quiet fury as the cuckolded husband. It is an intense performance.
Carrie Paff (former New York actress, plus Othello at Woman's Will and Pastures of Heaven at Word for Word) is admirable as Emma. At the beginning she portrays a stiff, cold woman who softens as the scenes go back in time. Christopher Marshall (regional theatre work in Milwaukee and two seasons with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival) as Jerry brings to the role a deceptive naturalness and plays a person trying to keep his own betrayal of his best friend Robert slightly out of focus. He seems to have a suppressed power to be a lover rather than a loose cannon; however, it is a good performance. Ephraim Swanson-Dusenbury has a very small cameo role as the Italian waiter, which he plays effectively.
The five previous productions of this play I have seen all were presented on a proscenium stage. This production is on a smaller, three-side stage with much too much furniture. My main objection in this production is the length of time it takes to change each scene. There are nine scene changes during which the audience must wait while set workers move the furniture to various positions in the darkened auditorium. The director tries to fill these pauses with various street noises, but that does not seem to work. A jarring effect is added to what should be a smooth flowing production.
Betrayal runs through July 25th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.
The theatre company will open its 13th season with the west coast premiere of The Persians, based on the earliest surviving play in Western literature. It opens on September 3.