Thursday, November 21, 2013

Betrayal at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Director Mike Nichols has assembled an "A" list cast for his revival of Harold Pinter's Olivier-award winning 1978 drama, Betrayal. Betrayal is well known both for its reverse chronological structure and for being inspired by the playwright's own years-long extramarital affair. With an economy of words, Betrayal relies on its cast giving the audience their characters' motivations for their rather despicable behavior through the actors own emotional responses. Deciding to cast real life husband and wife Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as the married Robert and Emma does not necessarily add any particular insight to the playwright's intentions. Betrayal is a solid production of a play that was considered groundbreaking in the 70's but for a 21st century audience lays bare the shortcomings of the text.

Betrayal begins to unspiral its tale in 1977 with the end of the affair between Emma and Jerry (Rafe Spall), who tells us multiple times that he is the cuckolded Robert's longest friend and best man at his wedding. From there we weave backwards to 1968 until we glimpse the start of the affair as the play ends. During two pivotal years, 1977 the year of the break-up and 1973 the year that Robert finds out about the affair, the story fleshes out with additional scenes that move the drama forward.  In the end the audience is left unsatisfied. We do not really understand the nature of Robert and Emma's marriage, or why Jerry is compelled to initiate the affair. Pinter leaves us wanting answers that he chooses not to give.

Given its limitations the fine trio of actors must work hard to enlighten us as to why they constantly "betray" each other. Daniel Craig gives a nonchalant matter-of-factness to Robert. At one point he casually mentions to Jerry that he has hit Emma, a violent act that is not dramatized and is disturbingly laughed off by the two male characters. Rachel Weisz' Emma is reserved and seemingly composed when interacting with both men yet she has an appealing vulnerability hiding beneath the surface that hints at the raw unhappiness of her life. Rafe Spall has the more histrionic character, Jerry.  Jerry in his hands does not hide his emotions and anxieties freely keeping them on the surface.  Yet, all three characters are ultimately unlikeable human beings. It is difficult for the audience to engage or root for any of them.

Special note must be made of the rather elaborate scenic design by Ian MacNeil. Pinter's nine scenes all take place in different locales requiring multiple scene changes. Mr. MacNeil has devised a system of sliding platforms and flying walls that smoothly glide into place. Along with the rather hypnotic original score by James Murphy it makes the scene changes as interesting to watch as the rest of the performance.

Betrayal is a good production of a play that shows its age. The production features good acting and excellent direction. Yet, without characters that have any redeeming qualities it is difficult for the audience to genuinely care about the reasons for the perfidy. In the end you may feel that this trio has gotten everything they deserve.

Betrayal is being performed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City through January 5, 2014.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

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