Soulless Literati Deceive Selves, Each Other in Betrayal (4.5 Stars)

Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Ave. presents Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal”; Directed by Maria Aitken and featuring Alan Cox, Gretchen Egolf, Luis Negron, and Mark H. Dold; Scenic Design by Allen Moyer; lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg; Costume design by Nancy Brennan. (November 9th thru December 9th).

One of the great things about theatre is that you don’t have to particularly like the characters to enjoy a show, as great writing and well-executed performances by a solid cast always make for a good evening of entertainment, no matter how reprehensible you find the subjects. In the case of the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal”, I found myself drawn into the play by simply trying to understand the point of their mostly joyless lives and how people could treat the ones the allegedly love so callously, as the infidelities appear to be just an extension of their relationship with the universe in general.

The play is told (mostly) in reverse, with the opening scene set in a pub where former lovers Emma (Gretchen Egolf) and Jerry (Alan Cox) meet and awkwardly trade niceties while “catching up”. Jerry is a literary agent for novelists, one of whom may be having an affair with Emma. She has asked Jerry to meet her because her husband Robert (Mark H. Dold) who is also Jerry’s best friend, has confessed to having a series of affairs for years, and she is hurt and appalled. She also reveals that she told Robert about her affair (which ended two years prior) with Jerry, who is utterly horrified that she has betrayed their little secret (which he is sure no-one suspected).

As the scenes unfold backward from 1977 to 1968, when Gerry first makes a drunken (and successful) pass at Emma at a party at her and Robert’s house (with Doors music blaring in the background) and we get a better sense of who knew what when, the behavior of the characters towards each other makes more sense. It’s like a stop-motion movie of an onion being peeled, with each exposed layer revealing more, and we get a glimpse into what both the marriage and the affair looked like while they still had something resembling love in the equation.

What makes “Betrayal” so unsettling to watch is that Jerry has not a hint of fear of discovery or discomfort while he is in the room with his friend, despite the fact that he is carrying on an affair with his wife. Jerry is an amoral cad, but the other two are hardly missionaries. No matter how much you dress up their behavior in the intellectual glamour of the world of the Literati, they’re operating at the same base level of trailer trash. The scenes between Robert and Jerry are remarkable mostly for their surface blandness – discussing playing squash (which they never get around to even once during the nine-year time span) and various books that the two have brought to market – while all the while you wonder if there will be an explosion on the part of the volatile Robert, or some expression of remorse by Jerry. Robert does show his seething anger and explosive temper throughout, but it is mostly directed at Emma when the pair appear in scenes together. It does make you wonder how much Robert’s rage and his own extramarital excursions are fueled by her infidelity with his best friend or whether it was a pre-existing condition that is only further exacerbated by the affairs.

Not much love or warmth is apparent in the scenes where Jerry and Emma get together, at least until you get back to the beginning. As love affairs go, this looks more like a business arrangement on the part of Jerry, and Emma seems chronically disappointed that she has again wasted her affection on an emotionally unavailable man. I found myself wondering throughout how these characters tolerated each other until I realized that they were always armed with a glass of wine or scotch or brandy to blunt themselves from their shallow existence. There is a constant reference to Jerry throwing Emma’s offspring in the air as if it’s the only remotely the only remotely human thing he’s ever done in his life, and he can’t even remember the details of that day very well.

There are a lot of things to like about this production, in addition to the fine performances. The sets are wide open and spare but elegant, evoking the general feeling of emptiness in the lives of the characters lives. The scene changes are enormously clever and are reminiscent of silent movies, where the fade to black originates at the edges and closes to a framed picture. The costumes are spot on and the changes in the characters physical appearance as they bring them back to earlier periods are interesting to watch, particularly Egolf’s Emma, who pulls it off best as we see her transform herself back into more of a feeling human being (and looking a bit like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby in her miniskirt).

You may not like these characters, or probably wouldn’t want to spend much time with them, but they are certainly interesting to watch. Self-centered and selfish people are always fun to watch, especially if you can gain some gratitude simply by not being them.

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