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Watching Betrayal with fascination, like a witness to a train wreck

Wednesday, Jul 7 2004
Telling a story backward is a device that comes up infrequently enough to surprise critics. A whodunit called Memento hit big in movie theaters a few years ago, and everyone was very impressed that a writer could spin a murder mystery from back to front without revealing the killer. Martin Amis published a novel called Time's Arrow in 1991, featuring a soul who narrates his story from death to birth and finds -- in the natural course of reversing time -- a metaphor for Nazism. In both cases the trick overshadows the writing; in both cases critics larded on language like "deft conceit" and "tour de force."

Harold Pinter's Betrayal is not a deft conceit or a tour de force. It's a simple drama of adultery, told backward for the simplest of reasons. It shows a love triangle from its last bitter drink in a bar to its first forbidden kiss. A literary agent named Jerry carries on for seven years with his best friend's wife, Emma. The friend, Robert, runs a publishing house in London. At first you're inclined to feel sorry for Robert, but the backward structure allows you to learn -- late in the game, with Jerry, which is to say early in the show -- that he knows about the affair.

He keeps cool and lets Emma and Jerry try to hide their affections. An audience watching the scenes in forward order would think Jerry has the upper hand: Here he is fucking Robert's wife, yet still making small talk at dinner parties, deceiving Robert to his face, ha ha ha. But watching the scenes in reverse shows a different power dynamic. There's Jerry, gabbing about racquet sports, thinking he's pulled a fast one, with Robert in full control. This game climaxes in a funny exchange between Jerry and Robert, which, since they're English, is almost quiet and civilized:

Robert: "I thought you knew."

Jerry: "Knew what?"

Robert: "That I knew!"

Charles Shaw Robinson plays a composed, wounded Robert, watching his wife and friend misbehave with a blend of fascination and pain. He can be impressive in his overcoat and suit, standing gravely with a drink, or cruel in a hotel in Venice, questioning Emma about an unexpected letter from Jerry. These scenes deal in Pinter's famous brooding menace, and they succeed. Earlier scenes, with Emma and Jerry, don't. Carrie Paff plays Emma well as a cheerful adulteress, bringing a picnic lunch to a tryst with Jerry, or as a nervous wife in Venice trying to escape Robert's insinuations, but her moments of menacing silence with Jerry near the start feel oversold.

As a rule, though, I think most of Pinter's menace is oversold. Pinter purists, who like the spare early Beckettian plays with their chiseled dialogue and long, staring pauses, mistrusted Betrayal when it premiered in 1978. Why was their man writing about a love affair? Where was that obscure, almost philosophical sense of sourceless tension and emptiness? For me the emptiness was always too empty, and I like Betrayal's icy handling of live, messy material. "Most of the details of the play are culled directly from a seven-year affair between Pinter and journalist Joan Bakewell, whose husband Michael (a television producer) was an early supporter of Pinter's," according to the program notes. So Pinter's role in the real story was Jerry's, and as a playwright he seems to work backward to distance himself, to reconsider the affair and study what a schmuck he'd been.

Christopher Marshall plays Jerry, accordingly, as a smiling nervous wreck. Jerry gets a few sharp lines -- "I couldn't be [professionally] jealous of [an author]; I'm his agent. I read all his first drafts" -- but in general he spends the play in more deceived bewilderment than anybody else. Marshall is layered, nuanced, and effective: He vacillates between self-composure and schlemielhood in a way most of us can recognize.

I should point out that Jerry's not the only schmuck. Betrayal turns on its theme like a kaleidoscope shifting patterns; everyone comes into focus as a deceiver. This changing focus becomes the reason to watch. The show is brief and brutal, less than 90 minutes long, but the reverse order of the scenes ensures there will be no suspense about what happens. Something else has to carry us along, and Tom Ross resists the temptation to direct it as a brain-puzzler. He makes Betrayal a human problem, and you watch with a natural fascination, like a witness to a train wreck.

Ross does let in a few corny touches, like toys and furniture suspended from the ceiling to suggest family homes in upheaval. Betrayal may also not be Pinter's greatest play, meaning his fullest or most powerful. But it's honest and concise, with a studied balance of satire and compassion. As funny as it is to watch Jerry fool himself while he thinks he's fooling Robert, it's also intensely sad, and Pinter's real contribution is his steel-eyed observation not just of betrayal, but also of frailty.


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