Betrayal: The Sourest Hangover

Bloodless Brits suffer passion’s fallout in Braden Abraham’s meticulous staging.

Most often, lust begins as a fuse lit in one of the lower chakras. It's a fast, hot burn, and one unlikely to sizzle all the way up the brain stem. For many a bloodless Brit, though, love affairs are endlessly messy inconveniences, rather like knowing you have to slog through the rain to the grocer's daily if you want that fresh milk at breakfast. So it is with Harold Pinter's 1978 ode to infidelity, Betrayal, chosen by Seattle Rep before the English playwright succumbed to cancer last December.Director Braden Abraham (whom we profiled in our Spring Arts Guide last month) conducts this cerebral postmortem of passion gone cold with clockwork precision. And, unlike many a Pinter play in which the characters are mired in ennui, the central trope of Betrayal is that it unfolds in reverse chronology. When we first meet Emma and her husband's best friend, Jerry, the year is 1978; their half-decade of assignations concluded two years earlier. In a nearly vacant room, they sip—no, guzzle—while poring over their infidelity in fits and starts. It's twitchy as an alpaca sweater in the summertime, and so antiseptic it's hard to imagine these two holding hands, let alone doing the horizontal bop.Slowly, Pinter lets the details seep out: Jerry's a literary agent, whose star author is probably now keeping Emma occupied in her spare time the way he once did; Emma's a horny hausfrau married to Robert, Jerry's onetime rival in business and in the sack. Both Jerry and his mistress have children, although they're mentioned only in passing, as one might discuss a yacht or a model train set. As the clock continues to turn back, Emma and Jerry exchange awkward moments with Robert, and all the while Robert regards each of them with that fabled English bonhomie and impassivity. By the time the 74-minute one-act concludes, they're all culpable—Jerry the cad, Emma the selfish liar, and Robert, who's been hedging his bets all along.What works in Seattle Rep's production does so wonderfully well. Abraham moves his players across the stage with chessman practice, pacing the slow turnings of loyalty so tidily that there's a creepy inevitability when each emotion yields to the next. He's also chosen his players well. Cheyenne Casebier fills in much of what's missing in Pinter's Emma with knowing glances and a kind of simmering sex appeal that only reveals its full radiance at the show's conclusion. Likewise, Alex Podulke is a brilliant Robert, all surface equanimity while carefully guarding his own pocketful of secrets beneath.David Christopher Wells' Jerry is a bit wobblier. Despite some admirable dialect and vocal coaching from Deborah Hecht, his accent doesn't quite lock in with the same believability as his colleagues', and he's just tentative enough to raise the question: Why did Emma fall for this guy, anyway? Had he answered that question for himself, Betrayal might be better than the noble effort it already is.Technically, the show is a jewel in the most perfect setting imaginable. Etta Lilienthal's elegantly minimalist sets shift seamlessly into place, and lighting-and-projections designer L.B. Morse adds to that aura of looking back through the glass darkly with a prism of dreamlike images that accompany the set changes. There's also some splendid original incidental music from Obadiah Eaves, who takes the show out of its time and resets it as timeless—a wise choice, when the other option would be to select something from the era. (Just imagine how cloying "Afternoon Delight" or "Torn Between Two Lovers" would have been.)And finally, Frances Kenny takes the fashions of the late '70s and gradually dials them back to 1968. The men seem always ready to pose for disco-era GQ covers, and Emma even sports a Dorothy Hamill wedge haircut at one point. Her fashions move from muted earth tones to chipper Mary Tyler Moore Show knockoffs until, at the beginning of the affair, Kenny finally swathes her in a slinky number that makes her look like a red-hot Pixy Stick. Who could resist that?

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