British director Maria Aitken (Private Lives, Educating Rita) returns to the Huntington Theatre Company to turn back time with Alan Cox (Jerry) and Gretchen Egolf (Emma) as the duplicitous duo, Mark H. Dold (Robert) as Emma's husband, and Luis Negrón as the waiter. As a young actress, Aitken was directed by Pinter in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit and was also a personal friend of the playwright. She successfully taps into the comedic elements of the play and pays homage to the importance of Pinter's trademark pauses and silences, understanding that what is not said in Betrayal speaks volumes.
The actors are adept at using those silences, sidelong glances and icy stares to convey the stifled emotions that Jerry, Emma and Robert rarely voice. However, for a play about a long-term love affair, there is surprisingly little affection on display and virtually no passion. Bear in mind that the characters are British; no one gets very excited about anything. None of them is particularly likeable or sympathetic, and although many adults beyond a certain age may have some experience with deceptive or unfaithful partners, it's difficult to identify with this trio. Absent the reveal in Venice, Robert is remote and seemingly untouched by the lack of connection with either his wife or his best friend. Although she works at a gallery, Emma's real talent is playing house and she seems to need a man to establish her self-worth. I guess Jerry is a likeable sort, but rather dim and self-absorbed. In fact, he's not much of a friend, lover or husband (to the unseen Judith).
Despite Allen Moyer's outstanding minimalist set, with creative use of curtain rectangles opening and closing on the scenes, the time stamp effectiveness of Nancy Brennan's costume design, and John Gromada's evocative musical interludes, Huntington Theatre Company misses its usual high water mark with Betrayal. Pinter's technique may be ideal for people who like to take a look at the last page of a novel when they are only midway through the book, or for fans of "Jeopardy" who enjoy seeing the answer before they know the question, but in this iteration it makes most of what comes before seem rather ho-hum. There is little enough drama as it is, the only credible danger being if Emma and Jerry are found out by the spouses. Even when that happens, the decibel level of the conversation rises only slightly, but the taut mood of the turning point in Venice gives the other scenes a feeling of passing time by comparison. The only character who made me smile was Negrón's jovial waiter in the Italian restaurant where Robert and Jerry have a fraught lunch together.
For me, the play plods too slowly through the snippets of memories that serve as the chosen mile markers of this arduous journey of ardor. Traveling to a past that is informed (for the audience) by what happens later makes me want to shout out a warning to the drunk, exuberant Jerry and tentative but titillated Emma not to start something that will come to no good. He may think he's in love with her, but he's really in thrall to her beauty and the forbidden fruit. When Robert surprises them, even he can see that, but bloodlessly chooses to let it go. How ironic that the final and most dramatic moment of the production follows that choice, leaving an indelible imprint of the brilliance of Pinter's technique.
Betrayal performances through December 9 at Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org.
Written by Harold Pinter, Directed by Maria Aitken, Scenic Design by Allen Moyer, Costume Design by Nancy Brennan, Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg, Original Music & Sound Design by John Gromada, Casting by Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager, Marti McIntosh; Stage Manager, Robin Grady
Cast: Gretchen Egolf, Alan Cox, Mark H. Dold, Luis Negrón