In the crisp opening scene of the West End Players Guild production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, silence and gesture speak louder than the dialogue. Michelle Hand as Emma and Tom Kopp as Jerry reveal that while their seven-year affair ended two years ago, they still have strong feelings for each other. While the scene elicits laughter at the surprisingly casual way in which they discuss infidelity and loyalty, a palpable tension underlies the exchange, leading the audience breathlessly into the next scene, in which Jerry confronts his best friend and Emma's husband Robert (Mark Abels).
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In this second scene, the carefully built tension begins to fade and perplexing issues begin to steal focus. The long-standing friendship between the men is constantly referred to but never really seen. Robert's knowledge of the affair between his best friend and his wife leads to distracting questions that the audience hopes will be answered later in the play. Unfortunately, the production mirrors the affair between Emma and Jerry it starts strong but fizzles by the end.
Pinter moves the action of the play backward (for the most part) after the second scene, showing us the end of the affair, the moment that Robert discovers the affair and various other points in the trio's relationship, ending with Emma and Jerry's first kiss. This theatrical construct is a twist on the usual story, in which the question is always: "What will happen next?" Here the question becomes: "What happened before?" And, even more important: "What happened in between?"
It's those "in between" moments where Pinter's script is most fascinating, and most frustrating. What happens between the scene where Robert discovers the affair and his lunch with Jerry (who is unaware of Robert's discovery)? Why doesn't he confront Jerry? Why does he continue his marriage with Emma, knowing the affair is ongoing? Abels' staid portrayal provides no indication of what Robert might be thinking, leaving the audience to guess about his motives rather than concentrate on the play.
Textual clues that should guide the pace of scenes are often missed. For example, when Robert and Jerry meet in a restaurant and drink a bottle of wine, then order a second bottle, it doesn't mean the men are guzzling their drinks. It means there are breaks in their dialogue, that it takes them some time to get through what they have to say. The awkwardness of the situation and the long pauses should be what propel them to drink. Instead it looks as if they're at a frat party, racing to see who can get drunkest fastest.
Kathleen Mayhew's lighting design defines the various locations nicely, but sound designer Chuck Lavazzi makes the play's mysteries murkier by providing scene-change music that gives no hints about time, location or shifting moods. And while Russell J. Bettlach's 1970s costumes accentuate Hand's beauty, the men's clothes are ugly polyester shirts that look more appropriate for a disco date than a business luncheon.
Director Renee Sevier-Monsey co-designed the set and seems to have focused more on the elaborate scene shifts than on helping the actors use those sets in logical ways. (Do people really sit on their dining-room table?) She also lets an exuberant waiter become the focus of a crucial scene between Robert and Jerry, making it seem as though she let the actors run with their own ideas rather than guiding them to work as an ensemble.
The play is, at its best, an intense study of relationships. It raises intriguing questions about love, friendship and the exact nature of "betrayal." Pinter's work demands a visceral interior life from each actor, which needs to be revealed in simmering silences that unveil secrets, and in discoveries that occur between the lines. Hand and Kopp often find these moments, but Abels' internal conflicts remain hidden, betraying Betrayal's theatrical power.