Monday, November 18, 2013

Theater Review: Betrayal

Directed by Mike Nichols. 2013.

Is it inevitable that any story touching on love or romance or sex eventually gets sold in tarted-up packaging designed to lure in the hoi polloi? Is it inevitable that philistines gravitate toward those strains of works? Yes and yes, if the reviews that festoon the Barrymore Theatre are any indication. Betrayal is "sexy" and full of "powerful performances." It's "great," too. And so is the cast. Perhaps the marquee layers and theater owners were simply trying not to spoil the show for new generations experiencing Harold Pinter's 1978 play. We thank them.

Famous for its reverse chronological narrative, Betrayal is the story of a love triangle between married couple Emma (Rachel Weisz) and Robert (Daniel Craig) and Jerry, Robert's best man and Rachel's lover of five years. It isn't the reverse chronology so much as the economy of the dialogue which gives Betrayal its bite. The characters don't have the luxury of grand speeches, monologues, or explanations, but only fleeting replies to suggest themselves to us, a technique that gives Betrayal an inviting intimacy. We always wonder just what characters mean with their words, whether they have the self-knowledge to mean what they say or be ironical. The reverse chronology only serves to magnify these doubts, forcing us to wonder at both the stage of the infidelities and who knows what about them.

What could easily turn into a jigsaw puzzle merely awaiting its final pieces, though, becomes an engrossing look at this triangle of betrayal. As we peel back into the past we realize that the breakdown begins earlier and earlier. We look back though lunches and afternoon getaways and vacations spent in isolation until in the final act we see that the betrayal began some point soon after the wedding of Robert and Emma When we realize this we revisit the whole story chronologically and wonder whether Robert didn't always know about Emma and his best man. If so, why start cheating, a reaction which doesn't forgive, confront, separate from, or punish Emma? Likewise the fact revealed in the opening that Emma had not only broken things off with Jerry but also plans to separate from Robert becomes less explicable the more the play progresses and we look back. It makes sense that she'd betray Robert for Jerry, but why break things off with Jerry, then separate from Robert, and in the opening scene not even make amends with Jerry?

Ultimately we wonder which spouse caused the rift. Was Robert always indifferent? Were his increasingly aggressive, insensitive behavior and his own affairs a reaction to his wife's infidelity or the cause of it? Was Emma's interest in Jerry a response or the cause of Robert's betrayal? We never lean for certain and the most truthful scenes of the play belong to neither spouse but Jerry, who pours his heart out to both of them, full of outrage at his friend's indifference to the betrayal, and full of love for Emma. Yet both Emma and Robert are ultimately indifferent to him. We empathize with Jerry while we experience Robert and Emma's lack of self-knowledge as Jerry's bafflement at their motives.

It's always a fear whether a film actor who can fill the screen with the benefit of effects and camera trickery can command the stage. The answer for Betrayal's trio is yes, although Rafe Spall is the more obvious success because of his character's greater dynamic range. He brings a manic energy to Jerry's outrage, although I'm puzzled why the audience found those tender, vulnerable moments funny. Craig and Weisz do an impressive job conveying interiority through sparse and veiled lines. Craig is always making himself comfortable, sprawling out on the furniture, despite the tension, and seems as if he's about to give up on every question. Weisz on the other hand shrinks inward and we feel her disappearing from the marriage as we imagine her next afternoon with Jerry.

No, Betrayal is not the sexy smoldering play it's billed as, but it's a perceptive, intimate question whether the betrayal of another doesn't begin with the betrayal of oneself.

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