Harold Pinter tellingly did not title it “The Betrayal.”
Unlike earlier works like “The Homecoming” and “The Birthday Party,” he eschewed the article “the” for his 1977 play, “Betrayal,” which opened Sunday at the Barrymore Theatre in a starry revival directed by Mike Nichols. There are so many betrayals in “Betrayal,” the least of which is the one Emma (Rachel Weisz) commits against her husband, Robert (Daniel Craig), by engaging in a long-running affair with his best friend, Jerry (Rafe Spall in a remarkable Broadway debut).
It’s as if Pinter is playing a game – to see how many betrayals he can rack up in the course of nine scenes and 100 minutes. It’s to the credit of Nichols and his actors that we forget about Pinter’s game and care deeply about the people on stage.
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The other game is that Pinter plots “Betrayal” in reverse, from the end of Robert and Emma’s affair in 1977 in a pub to its beginning in 1968 at a party. Weisz and Spall are so charming and engaging throughout that a palpable sadness settles over the Barrymore Theatre late in the play when we see them so physically and romantically engaged in the flat they’ve rented.
Where did the love/lust go? You’d never experience that regret so firsthand if the order of the play’s scenes were written in a conventional forward chronology and Robert and Emma were realized with less sympathetic performances.
It’s a sly piece of casting to have James Bond not play the lover. What woman would want to, dare to, cheat on James Bond? Adding even further to the slight confusion is that Craig, right from the getgo, presents a very loutish cuckold. Yes, Robert is cheating on Emma as well, but Pinter leaves those girlfriends offstage, they are never identified, and none of those affairs, we assume, have the full-blown love-affair stature of Emma and Jerry’s romance.
It’s a marvel of acting to watch Craig slowly bring the subtext of raging anger to the fore in scene after scene as Spall and Weisz effectively react with knowing silence.
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Pinter’s game of betrayals does not recede entirely. He turns the moral question of infidelity on its head by giving equal weight to other betrayals: There’s Emma’s getting pregnant by her husband while having an affair with Jerry. And there’s Robert’s dishonesty at not telling Jerry that he’s known about the affair for four years.
Pinter isn’t exactly subtle here regarding how much he’s lifted from Noel Coward’s “Design for Living,” in which the two men care for each more than the woman. Robert even tells Emma maybe he should be the one having an affair with Jerry. And Nichols has the two men practically mount each other (they’re clothed) in the play’s final, drunken scene.
Also not exactly subtle is Ian MacNeil’s set, which gives the two lovers a cold, gray flat to play in while the husband and wife visit a bordello-red hotel room on their ill-fated trip to Venice.
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Even though Pinter based the story of “Betrayal” on an incident from his own life, he changed a few things, of course. In real life, the triangle included two writers and an actor. Onstage, he made them a publisher, a gallerist and an agent. In other words, they aren’t artists; they are hangers-on in the art world.
The result is an edge of condescension to the characters, especially when the three of them dissect the talent of the novelist Casey, who’s kept offstage. Pinter is mocking their false sense of superiority, since we’re given no indication that either Robert, Emma or Jerry can put two sentences together, much less write novels – good or bad – like Casey.
It’s a major achievement of this production that Nichols and company appear to care more about these art-world parasites than the man who created them.