Look Back in Languor

Pinter's bitter autopsy of an affair is betrayed by a lack of passion.

Harold Pinter'sBetrayal begins where many sad love stories end, with a scene of alienation and confounded passion, as former lovers—in this case Emma (Heather Hawkins) and Jerry (Bob Borwick)—meet on neutral ground to sum up, in excruciating discomfort, all that has come to pass. Such tying up of loose ends puts a knot in one's stomach, and tangles the mind with the fraying threads of remorse, regret, and sexual nostalgia. From here, the play, which opened last week at Seattle Public Theater under the direction of associate artistic director Carole Roscoe, moves backward in time—like an exploded bomb rising up, sucking in shrapnel and collateral damage, and reintegrating.

Yet even that movement, revealing in reverse the romantic intricacies of Pinter's bourgeois ménage a trois—rounded out, so to speak, by Emma's cuckolded husband, Robert (Shawn Belyea)—proves a poisonous compulsion. The play is an autopsy of infidelity, no less distasteful for ending at the moment of seduction. These are desperate people, driven to desperate acts. Their downfall is where passion and resentment collide, and you can't have one without the other. Unfortunately, SPT's version of Betrayal is all ashes and no inferno; there is little evidence of even the most coldly calculating passion within and, more importantly, between the characters. Such a lack of passion, attraction, or lust moves beyond the cynical into the quizzical, a flatline display of unmotivated romantic sadism.

The play, due partly to its chronological structure, moves in snippets, contained episodes with a beginning, middle, and end. Unlike Christopher Nolan's time-reversed film, Memento, in which the beginning of each scene directly cued the ending of the next, Betrayal's structure is loose and unlinked; each episode is like a snapshot in a photo album, sometimes meant to capture a large swath of time. There is much that the audience doesn't see. The plot is as simple as its psychology is complex. Robert and Jerry are best friends from way back; Robert and Emma are married; Jerry and Emma commit adultery—they betray Robert, but not only Robert—in an affair long-standing enough to require a flat rented in secret, a lair of sex and lies. As the title indicates, the betrayals here run deep, crisscrossing like wires in a shoddily constructed explosive device. With brilliantly spare language that hides as much as it betrays, Pinter delineates a deep and compounding web of lies and evasion: self-deception, missed connections, dual meanings, conspiracies of concealment, denial, and manipulation. Between Jerry and Robert there runs a current of pride and longing; as in much of Dostoyevsky, their competition and desire runs deep with self-loathing and erotic bitterness, and there is a sense that everything they can't say and do for each other is channeled, misogynistically, through the conduit of an objectified Emma. This is but one of many layers of dishonesty and self-deception that mires the threesome in a deepening bog of betrayals.

The angst and cruelty that results from all this broken faith is on full display in Pinter's dialogue, which cuts with a painful authenticity. After Emma reveals the affair to her husband, he tells her, almost offhandedly, "I always liked Jerry. To be honest, I've always like him rather more than I liked you." Robert's "to be honest" perfectly captures Pinter's subversion of our ideas of truth and falsehood; moving beyond the borders of "good" and "bad," the playwright shows how an incautious or overly casual relationship with the language of love and friendship betrays a profound spiritual emptiness. The cast, especially the excellent Hawkins, are adept at capturing the psychic damage inflicted by a sense of betrayal—a wounding that can turn around and lash out with unbounded nastiness. The problem here is that there's nary a spark among any of the characters, no feeling of routed passion or strength of unrequited feeling; to make such severe loathing convincing, there must be an indication of its opposite, a trace of a previous spark of feeling or, dare one say it, love.

Such remoteness is only exacerbated by the adoption of British accents, an utterly unnecessary contrivance that seems to create a serious gap in the actors' ability to connect to one another. This is a common problem among local theater troupes, and it's no small matter: Call it the Monty Python syndrome. The easiest accent for an American to duplicate, the faux-British accent carries a loaded freight of awkward implications that more often than not undermine exactly what it's trying to accomplish—namely, a sense of authenticity. Onstage, one must own the material, make it one's possession, if only to show the work a modicum of respect. Betrayal purposely avoids social, political, or temporal reference points; it is a universalized work, a hermetically sealed vision of a hell that could take place anywhere at any time. Change a couple of place-names, and the principals could be in, say, Tacoma. Such a reliance on mimicry is symptomatic of an unwillingness to take hold of the material. SPT's production of Betrayal, whether over-reverential or too timid, commits a kind of self-betrayal.


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