October 27, 2013: A new production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal opens on Broadway, in a production directed by Mike Nichols and starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Rafe Spall. The 1978 reverse-chronology drama about interlocking marital infidelities, universally acknowledged a classic, is the Big Event of the fall season.
October 23, 2013: At a press performance a few days before the opening, all sorts of pairings and power games are observed. Glenn Close and Bette Midler sit together; Midler gets the aisle. Just as the lights dim, Gayle King rushes to join Oprah a few rows ahead. Neither gets the aisle! Javier Bardem does not seem to notice. He is on the aisle.
A few minutes later: A very tasteful, tranquil, and often beautiful performance of Betrayal begins. Its style is best exemplified by Ian MacNeil’s scenery — a series of translucent boxes that fit within one another like Matryoshka dolls and float into place as scene succeeds scene. Or do scenes precede scenes? Both, really. Though the standard description of Pinter’s “reverse chronology” is inaccurate (people don’t speak backward, and several scenes in a row actually move forward) the overall trajectory is indeed toward the past. It begins in 1977, two years after the affair between Emma (Weisz) and Jerry (Spall) has ended, and ends in 1968, just as it’s beginning. In between, Emma’s husband, Robert (Craig), is at first nonchalant, then resigned, then furious, then oblivious. In this way, Pinter betrays a fundamental condition of drama, that actions cause consequences. Instead, he has consequences causing actions, at least until he betrays that betrayal. Either way, it’s a closed loop. And Pinter sets his traps so smartly that each one gets a laugh and a wince as it springs shut.
Even later that evening, but not much later, because the play is only 90 minutes long: After a while, the cascading permutations of the theme bring to mind those puzzles in which you are asked to count how many triangles you can find in a picture. Emma and Jerry betray Robert with their affair, but he is at the same time betraying Emma by sleeping with other women. Jerry feels betrayed because Robert, his publishing colleague and squash buddy, has known about the affair for years yet said nothing. Emma feels betrayed by Jerry’s refusal to leave his wife, now that she may be leaving Robert. And is there not, in this production, more than a hint that Jerry and Robert feel betrayed by a world that requires them each to have Emma instead of one another? In any case, everyone betrays everyone. It may be that there can be no love without it.
The next day: Do I spoil the Big Event by noting that Nichols has directed all this with a kind of Olympian detachment? His touch is so sure, his eye and ear so refined, we see the play as if from above, a perspective that brings out its abstract patterns, as if it were modern dance. Not one detail is amiss, especially in Ann Roth’s costumes: the high-waisted seventies trousers on the men and Emma’s shimmering crimson caftan, circa 1968. They are so apt that, along with the men’s floppy hair, they may cause you to think you are watching a period drama. A bigger problem is the surprising lack of detail in the acting. Craig delivers a solid performance; he’s smart and emphatic and deeply engaged, but not psychologically nuanced. (I’d like to see him in The Homecoming.) Weisz gives Emma a petulant spin that makes her seem a bit unlikely as the fulcrum of the ménage. (Well, she does look great.) The two feel deployed, not exposed. Spall, though, is sensational. He renders Jerry’s various selves (randy, sexy, selfish, sulky, self-justifying) not as a series of poses but as a solid-state condition: the blur of traits by which great acting impersonates personality.
August 2013: Speaking to New York Magazine about the upcoming production, Craig acknowledges that he and Weisz, who married in 2011 after long relationships with other people, are exposing themselves by choosing to play an unfaithfully married couple onstage. “But we’re professionally exposing ourselves,” he clarifies.
Sometime in the 1990s: People like the characters in Betrayal begin to seem ridiculous. In the future, surely, only politicians will behave this way. As a result, revivals of the play — by now considered Pinter’s only Feel-Good Hit — are often soft and sympathetic affairs. They make you wonder what happened to the brutes and thugs that populated earlier Pinter landmarks like The Homecoming and The Caretaker. In Betrayal,they have been replaced by the kind of upper middle class professionals whom ticket-buyers might recognize as their own kind. They brawl only when drunk, and otherwise keep their thuggery behind masks of literary sangfroid; indeed, Jerry is a literary agent and Robert a book publisher. (Emma runs an art gallery, and of course takes care of her two kids.) Seen this way, the three don’t represent a problem in society, just in themselves. And because the play is often so funny, it seems that Pinter is indulging them. Why?
1983: A movie version of Betrayal opens, starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge. It is directed by David Jones, replacing Mike Nichols, who had hoped to make the film (with Meryl Streep). Some things are never meant to be. During filming, Pinter insists there is nothing homoerotic in the play. Also, and perhaps relatedly, that there is nothing autobiographical in it. He says he is not interested in the affair between Emma and Jerry as much as in the relationship between Jerry and Robert.
1981: The Sondheim-Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along, based on a 1934 Kaufman and Hart play, opens (and quickly closes) on Broadway. Much is made of its Betrayal-like reverse chronology. But there’s a fundamental difference. Merrily shows us, as it moves back in time, how dreadfully the characters have changed from their hopeful, innocent, teenaged selves. Betrayal fails to exploit that touching opportunity, or perhaps doesn’t mean to. Instead Pinter shows how dreadfully the characters have not changed. His point seems to be: We will always be what we always were.
1978: At the time of its theatrical premiere, Betrayal is hailed as one of Pinter’s best plays: a blistering comment on an age of selfishness from an artist at the peak of his imaginative powers.
1962: Pinter, while married to the actress Vivien Merchant, begins a seven-year affair with a BBC correspondent named Joan Bakewell. He also becomes friendly with Bakewell’s husband. When the husband discovers the affair, he says nothing. When Pinter learns that the husband knew, he is, according to the husband, indignant.
Betrayal is at the Ethel Barrymore Theater through January 5.