Theater Review: ‘Betrayal’

The Insidious Poison of Faithlessness
September 16, 2019 Updated: September 22, 2019

NEW YORK—By the end of the Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play “Betrayal,” there are no winners, only survivors. The work has arrived in New York, with the cast intact, after an acclaimed run in London.

As gallery owner Emma (Zawe Ashton) explains to her former lover Jerry (Charlie Cox), her marriage of more than a decade to Robert (Tom Hiddleston) appears to have come to an end. During this marriage, there have been infidelities on both sides, most importantly the married Jerry’s seven-year affair with Emma.

Emma and Robert have come completely clean with each other, much to the consternation of Jerry, who is Robert’s oldest friend. Jerry wonders how he will be able to face Robert now that the truth has come out.

With this information as a starting point, the play unfolds in an intricate but nonlinear fashion. It flashes back in time, and then creeps forward a bit before going back even further as the interactions between these three are explored. For “Betrayal” is not only about the eventual collapse of Emma and Robert’s marriage. It’s about the relationships that Emma, Robert, and Jerry have with one another, and how each is tested in its own way.

While the play mostly explores the Emma and Jerry side of the triangle, it’s made perfectly clear that Robert is no angel either. The audience sees what basically amounts to a slow and inexorable train wreck these people make of their lives. And we learn as well of those who become collateral damage: the unseen Judith, Jerry’s wife; and the children from the two marriages.

One of the strongest elements of Jamie Lloyd’s direction was the decision to strip down the production and keep all three characters on stage for most of the play, even when all three aren’t in a particular scene. Any character not involved in a sequence is positioned so that his or her presence is still clearly felt—as though the third person is always in the thoughts of the other two.

The scenic design by Soutra Gilmour works very well here. Her set, for the most part, consists of only two straight-backed chairs and an occasional prop. The stark lighting design by Jon Clark more than ably sets the mood. The elements all come together perfectly, particularly during the play’s final moments.

It is to Pinter’s credit that because of the way the narrative unfolds, the audience knows more of what’s going on and is able to interpret certain comments or actions quite differently from that of the characters themselves. This dynamic becomes especially clear during a hilarious scene with Robert and Jerry at lunch, when they express feelings of anger and bewilderment. Eddie Arnold adds some extra comic relief here as a waiter.

Hiddleston comes off as the most sympathetic of the three leads, despite his character’s earlier self-proclaimed shortcomings. The pain is clearly etched on his face during an emotionally devastating, physically quiet scene where exactly what this betrayal means comes through in full force.

Cox brings some interesting lightheartedness to the story as Jerry, though completely unintentional from the point of view of the character. Jerry is somewhat dim, either due to his actual blind spots, such as his attempting to claim the moral high when he has no business doing so, or because he can’t fully express himself without revealing something he wants to keep hidden.

Ashton does a quite good job in bringing Emma to life, both as a sensual being and a person who does not want to let herself be defined by the two men. It’s also the most difficult role in the play, as Pinter is more interested in explaining what is happening rather than the character’s motives.

An excellent study of human failings, this revival of “Betrayal” is nothing less than engrossing. The only true winners are those fortunate enough to see this revival before it concludes its limited run.

‘Betrayal’
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th St., New York
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Dec. 8

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle. He can be reached at bnchpeop@aol.com