Secret love shacks, or love flats as the case may be, notwithstanding, no affair is an island built for two – there’s always at least a third person in the mix, typically considered the betrayed. In Jamie Lloyd’s masterful revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal – one is tempted to call it a reinvention, so deeply and definitely urgent is his take – three of the ever-shifting betrayers and betrayees occupy the stage at all times, one or another bearing silent witness as the other two enact an affair’s all-too-familiar scenes of lies, transgressions, excitement and the love that, at least fleetingly, prompts it all.
With a starry, pitch- and picture-perfect cast imported from the smash London staging – Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton – Lloyd’s staging of Pinter’s 1978 masterpiece, opening tonight at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Betrayal feels at once classic and altogether contemporary, a seamless weaving together of elements, from the fashionably spare stage and boho chic costumes to the director’s impeccably timed shuffling of characters from stage spot to stage spot, era to era, high mood to low.
Presented in reverse chronology – we meet the characters years after the end of the affair (though certainly not after its consequences) and follow them in scenes that scroll back to the first flirtation – Pinter’s play debuted five years before Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s backward musical Merrily We Roll Along, the play victorious over the structure’s challenges in ways the musical rarely accomplishes.
Lloyd’s staging, unhurried but never dawdling, glides through the emotional time tunnel as each scene, or, rather, each encounter of the characters in configurations of mostly two, occasionally three, flows with the certainty of logic. Or maybe it just seems logical in the hindsight built into the structure. Either way, each and every meeting of these characters is something of an “a-ha!” moment, leaving us convinced we’ve just been handed a crucial piece to a puzzle.
Our first meeting is with Jerry (Cox) and Emma (Ashton), whose seven-year affair (she’s married to Jerry’s longtime best friend Robert, played by Hiddleston) has been over for some years now. She’s called him, seemingly, out of the blue, and their wistful meet-up is loaded with the “You think of me sometimes?” and “I remember” aches and pains that lose none of their haunting durability for having been spoken.
Seated closely in two hard-backed chairs on the otherwise empty stage, Emma takes her time getting to the point: She wants Jerry to know that she has confessed all to Robert, just last night in fact. Hiddleston’s Robert silently watches the encounter just as we do.
Next comes the gobsmacked and guilt-ridden Jerry’s quickly arranged meeting with Robert, his intention apparently one of too-late confession and perhaps forgiveness-seeking.
Robert’s confused, though. Emma didn’t spill the beans last night, but rather four years ago. The betrayed husband has known everything, through all the increasingly infrequent boozy lunches that had the husband and his seemingly clueless best man continuing a friendship now revealed in all its shabby dishonesty. The betrayer has become the betrayed, and not for the last time.
As Betrayal unfolds in reverse time to the first stolen kiss between Jerry and Emma seven years prior, we learn perhaps more than we’d care to about these attractive, bookish and stylish intellectuals (Pinter based the play on his own real-life affair). Our empathy for the cuckolded Robert diminishes when he owns up to hitting Emma “once or twice” merely because he felt like giving her a good “bashing.” The affable Jerry seems appropriately conscience-stricken, right up to the early point when we discover his backstabbing intentions. Even Emma, so smart, witty and beautiful, won’t get out of here unscathed.
Played against simple, mottled gray panels on a near-bare stage (Jon Clark’s lighting design casts doppelgänger shadows, and Soutra Gilmour did the very effective scenic and costume designs, indicating no era, certainly not the ’60s-’70s period Pinter intended), Betrayal showcases three of the best dramatic performances currently on a New York stage. In their Broadway debuts, Hiddleston (The Avengers), Cox (Daredevil) and Ashton (Velvet Buzzsaw) prove what London theatergoers have long known: Each holds the stage with a conviction that’s unbeatable. The compelling Hiddleston might get top billing, but his co-stars are no less commanding.
As the stage revolves and shuttles them to and fro, giving visual force to Pinter’s movement of these characters each through the others’ lives, Lloyd expertly focuses our attention on the performances. Aching, wistful and wounding, the director’s staging of Betrayal presents three friends and lovers trapped in an undoing of their own making, their inevitable self-destruction no less powerful for showing itself before the happier days.