There’s one great morality-scrambling moment in “The Sandpiper,” arguably Vincente Minnelli’s worst movie, that accurately encapsulates and exposes the twisted logic of chronic cheaters. It comes when Elizabeth Taylor, playing a bohemian artist living in Big Sur, finds out that her Episcopalian minister-lover, played by Richard Burton, has told his wife that he’s having an affair. Beyond distraught at being told the news, Taylor’s character lashes out, experiencing extreme betrayal that the sacred confidence of their illicit relationship has been irrevocably breached.
It may seem odd to compare “The Sandpiper” to Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” but watching the new Broadway revival, which opened Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after a run in London, Minnelli’s potboiler came to mind, especially that pivotal scene in which Taylor overreacts to a lover being unconscionably honest with his own wife.
First produced in 1979, “Betrayal” followed “The Sandpiper” by 14 years, but makes up for being something of a copycat by delivering dozens of intricate variations on that singular celluloid instant when the sinner is the one betrayed. In fact, the best thing about the current revival of “Betrayal” is that its star, “Thor” alum Tom Hiddleston, never overreacts and instead underplays to the extreme when his book editor character, Robert, gets hit with the realization that he may not have sired one of his two children; the real father may, or may not, be his good friend Jerry (Charlie Cox, “Daredevil”), a literary agent with whom he has shared many drinks, business lunches and squash matches.
Unlike Roy Scheider in the first Broadway production of “Betrayal” (1980), or Daniel Craig in the last Broadway revival (2013) or even Ben Kingsley in the movie version (1983), Hiddleston’s Robert does not pull a Liz-size tantrum to punish his unfaithful spouse, Emma (Zawe Ashton, “Velvet Buzzsaw”), who is Jerry’s longtime paramour. Hiddleston’s take on Robert possibly not being a father-times-two is to underplay the moment, and, in the process, show us that Robert has the upper hand despite his own chronic philandering.
Instead of giving Emma the easy release of being screamed at, his instinct is to torture her with measured queries delivered from a suppressed cloud of anger. His minimalist approach to the problem extracts the maximum tonnage of guilt. It’s a tour de force of understatement, and one Hiddleston repeats later over drinks with Jerry to only slightly less devastating effect.
This “Betrayal” revival, directed by Jamie Lloyd, is as bare and stark as the last Broadway revival, directed by Mike Nichols, was fussy and overproduced. Soutra Gilmour’s set consists of a table and chairs, two turntables, and a back wall that, when the atmosphere turns claustrophobic, pushes the actors down stage almost into the audience’s lap. Jon Clark’s lighting brings to mind an office or a laboratory. Never do these design elements or Lloyd’s direction give any of these characters the chance to escape from each other. It’s the problem with being in an extramarital relationship: There’s never only two people in bed at the same time. Those other not-present partners have a way of hovering over the bed sheets. Lloyd’s direction puts that crowded predicament in boldface.
Jerry comes off as the biggest dupe in this triangle, and Cox laces his portrayal with enormous humor. He’s as sympathetic as Hiddleston is manipulative. In those scenes where their respective characters aren’t supposed to be in the same room, Cox and Hiddleston remain on stage standing or sitting against that back wall. They exhibit all the personality of a statue in Central Park and yet their silent presence proves deeply disturbing. Without ever suggesting anything homoerotic, it’s their relationship that dominates, even though they’re the two people who aren’t sleeping with each other.
In this threesome, Emma gets stuck being the odd person out. Perhaps too odd for the good of this revival. Some of Emma’s outsider status is written into the script. She’s a woman, for starters. However, although she is identified as the owner of a gallery, her career never figures much into the story, while Jerry and Robert’s positions in the London book publishing world is central. Emma, in fact, talks more about the books that Jerry and Robert are responsible for publishing (or not) than she does her own artists. Pinter clearly has contempt for these hangers-on in the art world, people who can’t write or paint or otherwise create anything, and yet feel entitled to belittle the very real talent of those who can.
Emma shares that parasitic nature with the two male characters, as well as the overcompensating arrogance that goes with it. Otherwise, Lloyd’s direction demands that we see her in a different light. It’s a picayune observation, but Gilmour’s purposefully ordinary costumes provide shoes for Hiddleston and Cox but none for Ashton. She spends the play’s 90 minutes barefoot, as if to stress her vulnerability. Or does it simply make her more ready than the guys for a little bedroom action?
Unlike Hiddleston and Cox, who remain stationary when their characters are supposed to be off stage, Ashton sometimes stalks that back wall. When this Emma does interact with Robert or Jerry, she strikes a limited number of poses — legs splayed apart or ankles wrapped together when she’s sitting, one arm akimbo and one hip stuck out when she’s standing. There’s also a lot of hair flouncing. If Lloyd’s direction is to establish Emma as a seductress, Ashton doesn’t make a very convincing one. She’s mannered and self-conscious, qualities that this actor also brings to the recent Netflix film “Velvet Buzzsaw,” playing Jake Gyllenhaal’s dubious love interest. There, Ashton plays another pretentious arbiter of taste, from L.A.’s gallery scene. To borrow an art-world term, her work is “counterfeit.”