Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 27, 2013
Betrayal by Harold Pinter. Directed by Mike Nichols. Scenic design by Ian MacNeil. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Original music by James Murphy. Video design by Finn Ross. Hair, wigs & makeup by Campbell Young & Luc Verschueren. Cast: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Rafe Spall.
In this new revival, the infelicities of infidelity and illicit love are as agonizing as arguing over the brand of ice cream to include on a shopping list. And the deepest anguish, the most potent loss, and the abandonment of a decade of passionate attention are no more deserving of in-depth psychological examination than, say, the 1960s Broadway comedies directed by Mike Nichols.
What, Nichols also directed this revival? Funny, that (in more ways than one).
Before going any further, it's worth acknowledging that the most important verdict on this revival is already in. Buoyed by the casting of Daniel Craig, Mr. James Bond himself, who last appeared on Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman in A Steady Rain in 2009, starring opposite his real-life wife Rachel Weisz, this production has already racked up record grosses and is all but sold out through the end of its run in January. No theatrical force alive canor would dream of trying tostop a public that wants to treat something like an Event rather than a play.
But is it too much to expect the people involved in putting on the show to do the same? In every way, this mounting evinces a shrugging indifference to probing the deepest recesses of human emotions or, more specifically, two couplings in the final throes of crisis. Such an approach might work for plays that either acknowledge their inherent silliness or consider a light touch to be an ironic barrier against shadowy heartbreak within, but in Betrayal it's a miscalculation at best and a mistake at worst.
Far from a gimmick, the reverse chronology strengthens both the mystery at the story's center and our interpretation of it, helping us view each new (old) occurrence from as objective a vantage point as possible before revealing how ourand the characters'perceptions were wrong. By the end (beginning) of the play, we should be as enraptured by the missed opportunities and squandered relationships as Emma and Jerry are by each other, and get a startling glimpse at what could have been and why, in the initial moments, it mattered.
The key word in that last sentence is should. For the effect to succeed, the director and actors must demonstrate how the accumulated weight of ten years of lies has crushed Emma, Jerry, and Robert not only in others' eyes but in their own. When first we see them, Weisz portrays Emma as handsomely distant, an airy presence struggling to reach ground, and Spall the knock-around clown who's forced to put on a serious face when he learns no one finds his jokes funny. But any sense that oppression, grief, or regret exist, or ever have existed, is utterly missing. Emma and Jerry are living out of time, the one thing neither must ever do.
Heaviness introduces itself a couple of scenes later (and a couple of years earlier), suggesting that by 1977 that full acceptance had already set in, when Emma and Jerry should just be realizing what's crumbling. It's only in Emma and Jerry's earlier flings that time and space properly align, and that the straight-ahead Spall and aloof Weisz kindle any genuine chemistry, leaving us for a few brief minutes to bask in what might have been. But at the end of the story as well as at the beginning, a tone-deaf rendering of Jerry and Emma's meeting that sends the evening sputtering to a close, any hint of why or when these people are is absent.
Craig, for his part, supplies that, and always seems properly in the moment, but he has a different set of problems. A leading man in what amounts to a reactionary supporting part, he's always overapplying charm to bring us closer to the too-often charmless Robertsomething Weisz and Spall do not consciously do. Worse, Craig's Robert is so blandly oblivious, so disengaged from himself, that you're not sure he'd even notice Emma left the house, let alone taken up with his best friendthis might make sense in the chronologically earliest scenes, but not the later ones when he should (and does) know better.
The three incompatible performances throw the play into chaos. Unless the roles are balanced and unless everyone supportsand can believably threaten to toppleeveryone else, the triangle of deception on which the play ideally rests fails to form. Craig's Robert is simply too flimsy to compete with the more real, if more disconnected, Emma and Jerry, and without some indication of the unions' vitality, there's no way for you to become invested in either what's gained or lost.
A different director might have been able to coordinate the performers, but at times Nichols's collision of cosmic forces seems to be the intended effect. Though he's encouraged Ian MacNeil to create an appropriately expansive but overly busy setwhich looks at once intentionally cheesy and unintentionally cheap, and with different components descending from the flies and sliding in from offstage takes too long to assembleand Brian MacDevitt to get moody with his lighting design, things become most jumbled because of Nichols's treatment of the pauses.
Pinter is renowned as a playwright as much for what he didn't write as what he did, and the thoughts and feelings left unspoken become crucial when secrecy is a core theme. When Nichols hasn't eradicated the moments of fraught silence altogether, he's sufficiently thinned the air surrounding the ones that remain that they resemble stutters more than they do speeches. There's not enough time for the characters or you to get lost in the implications of the silences, and that's time you need to absorb and appreciate what's going on.
The ultimate effect of all this is that everything underwhelms, and the only thing Emma, Jerry, and Robert become lost in is the grudging acknowledgment of the absurdity of their lives. Nichols, in latching onto this and building his entire concept around it, has done what he was not able to do with Death of a Salesman last year: make this revival his own. But that accomplishment would be more notable if he had bothered to also make it Betrayal.