Scott Klavan on Betrayal
By Harold Pinter
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Broadway—Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan – October 17, 2019
Betrayal, by Harold Pinter, opened on Broadway in January of 1980, in a production that Variety called a “drastic flop.” While Walter Kerr in his New York Times review wrote the play was “as mesmerizing as a cobra….” and “I found it fascinating,” it is one of Broadway’s more interesting failures, running only 170 performances.
This reviewer, a Pinter fan, saw that show and remembers it as disappointingly artificial. The big-name cast of Blythe Danner, Raul Julia, and Roy Scheider, were all arch, forced, and off-balance; even their British accents came off as hammy. The play was directed by the late Peter Hall, the innovative force behind dozens of groundbreaking British plays and for fifteen years the Director of The National Theatre. Hall had directed the original British Betrayal in 1978, featuring Penelope Wilton, Michael Gambon, and Daniel Massey, but then replaced the entire cast for its shift to the US. According to a December 1979 interview in the New York Times promoting the Broadway transfer, Hall wanted to keep British actors in the New York cast because “Americans find (sic) very difficult to speak English idiomatically.” But Actors Equity would not allow English actors in the parts unless they were international stars (a stance that has since been relaxed). The change was made, to disastrous effect.
Since then, the play has received several revivals in New York, featuring players as varied in nationalities and personalities as Liev Schreiber, Juliet Binoche, John Slattery, Daniel Craig, and Rachel Weisz, and directors such as Briton David Leveaux and American Mike Nichols. While the Nichols production, riding Craig’s James Bond popularity, was profitable, by many accounts these attempts mirrored 1980’s failure to capture the nuances and hidden emotion of Pinter’s tale of marital infidelity, crossed meanings, and our failed search for perfect satisfaction in connections with other human beings. (The 1983 British film, directed by David Jones, with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge, was effectively loyal to its source material.)
Betrayal’s structure is, by now, familiar and oft-used. Moving backwards and forwards in time, from 1968 to 1977, it charts a long-term affair between literary agent Jerry, and Emma, an art gallery owner married to Robert, a book publisher and Jerry’s “best friend.” The quotes are there because the play, which features scenes at locales such as Robert and Emma’s house, the flat Jerry and Emma use for their trysts, and a Venice vacation taken by the married couple, toys with elusive ideas of friendship, sex, devotion, and parenting, using its crooked story frame to illustrate the unknowability of our “loved ones,” and the need for a pure feeling of contentment that may only be achieved by solitude. In its spare language and short “normal” conversations, everyone is hiding a secret knowledge, one that in itself is only a thin bulwark against cosmic confusion. Betrayal is a companion piece, in a way, to Sartre’s existential classic No Exit, where “There are no-red hot pokers. Hell is other people.” Our lovers, husbands, wives, children, expose our imperfections and decay, and the only solution is for cuckolded Robert to leave his wife on their Venice vacation, take a small boat to an island, and read Yeats, alone. Even this fails to provide solace, because the solo trip may only have meaning when Robert uses it as a kind of weapon against Jerry, the man screwing his wife.
While previous attempts at staging Betrayal from 1980 to the 2010s were inadequate, the current Broadway revival, directed by Briton Jamie Lloyd, with English Charlie Cox (Jerry), Tom Hiddleston (Robert), and Zawe Ashton (Emma) nails it. Director Lloyd, a Pinter veteran and head of his own theatre company abroad, brings this production straight from its run in the West End. He puts the piece on a mostly blank stage, and the actors are periodically moved by a slow turntable-within-a-turntable, that keeps the characters detached, disappearing and reappearing to each other, within-arms-reach but far away. Chairs and tables are moved in and out, and when one actor is “off-stage,” he/she leans against the back wall, nearby but oblivious to the goings-on. Soutra Gilmour’s scenic design operates within the play’s theme, without overwhelming/undermining it, an unalloyed success. Instead of running from the classic/cliché Pinter Pause, director Lloyd embraces it; the silences are simultaneously uncomfortable and meaningful. A few awkward furniture switches and an over-the-top characterization of an Italian waiter are minor miscalculations.
The three actors have the British knack of taking each line and twisting it in a quiet, fresh, compelling, completely natural way, a technique that American actors don’t seem to have the patience for. (Although Jake Gyllenhaal equals his British counterpart Tom Sturridge in this kind of evocative downplaying in the recent Brit solo one-acts Sea Wall/A Life, at least in the downtown Public Theatre show I caught, before it moved to a larger uptown stage.) Tom Hiddleston, revered by those born after 1980 for the Avengers films rather than the myriad classic roles, including Hamlet, he has done overseas, makes Robert both bluff and dissatisfied, a traditional guy trying to find his way through the years-long humiliation he is suffering at the hands of his wife and best friend. His drunken scene in a restaurant, where he talks of his Venice vacation with Jerry, almost revealing his knowledge of the affair, is a bitterly lively highpoint. Charlie Cox makes the self-involved Jerry both endearing and exasperating; Jerry is only thrown by his cheating when his betrayed best friend can’t muster the kind of shock and indignation he thinks it deserves. (Jerry’s seemingly loyal and upstanding wife Judith, a doctor, is never seen.) Zawe Ashton sharply delineates Emma’s near-constant sensuality, her manipulation of the men for their primal sexual anxiety; or maybe, she just wants to get laid. The restraint of these actors, their merge of intellectualism and feeling, make this surely the best production of this play ever on Broadway.
It makes one wonder if there has ever been a great or even very good performance by an American actor in a Pinter piece. This reviewer remembers Ian Holm in Lincoln Center Festival’s 2001 The Homecoming, Jonathan Pryce’s The Caretaker at BAM in 2009, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land (2013), and probably some others in years gone by, but no Americans. (Okay, Meryl Streep in the movie of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but Pinter’s 1981 screenplay was an adaptation of the John Fowles novel, and in any case, Streep is in her own category.) American theatergoers like their plays with yelling, shouting, and feet stamping, and our actors like to oblige them. (This Betrayal is running officially until December 8, but has been on discounts for a while.) In the 1979 Times article, Roy Scheider found Robert’s “stiff upper lip…a bit alien” to his own personality; Blythe Danner said the part and play were a “great lesson in staying contained.” It didn’t work for them; the tricky, insidiously gut-slamming truthfulness of Pinter’s Betrayal was not their can of Coke.
Betrayal Photo Credit: Mark Brenner
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He is currently helping develop and directing Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth; Eleanor and Alice was presented at the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY, and soon, the Roosevelt House in NYC. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.