Backward 'Betrayal' borders on bathos
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Playing things backward has emerged as a coincidental theme in the local theater season.
In January, The Lizard Loft produced Jason Robert Brown's two-character musical, "The Last 5 Years," in which a couple's breakup is played forward by the husband, but in reverse by the wife.
In February, Tony Apostol and Shen Sugai staged "Femme Capulet," their adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," which opens with the lovers' double suicide and goes back in time.
Now the late-March opening by The Actors' Group of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal" again follows that direction, peeling back the anatomy of a failed affair by tracking it in reverse.
A central theme in these widely dissimilar productions is that the reverse technique increases the irony of each succeeding scene, since the audience knows the outcome while the characters do not. The approach adds interest to "Betrayal," which would not be nearly as effective if it were staged chronologically, but it fails to make it a great play.
Pinter first gained attention for "The Birthday Party" in 1958, an absurdly threatening drama which drew comparisons to the work of Samuel Beckett, and followed it up with a prolific body of work, culminating in his receiving the Nobel Prize for literature just last year.
"Betrayal" dates to 1978, with a film version in 1981. It offers three solid acting roles but not a great deal of insight. The current TAG production rises to the acting challenge, but Liz Kane's direction isn't able to give the play depth. Perhaps there's just not enough white space between the lines.
The play travels almost entirely on its subtext. It's not what the characters say that is most important; it's what they imply. Most of the dialogue is crushingly ordinary and ritualistic — as if these sophisticated people measure out their lives between glasses of white wine.
Jerry (Peter Ruocco) is a literary agent, Emma (Susan Park) is an art director, and her husband Robert (Curtis Duncan) is a publisher. Although Jerry and Robert are best friends, he and Emma have had an affair lasting several years. Robert knows it and Emma knows he knows. Only Jerry is unaware.
The danger in the banal setup and dialogue is that leaning too hard on the subtext can turn it all into a television soap. And while Pinter is known for letting pauses project substance, too much of that here could invite melodramatic chords on an invisible organ.
So while the acting company does good work at creating their characters, the drama slides toward common sentimentalism. Each of them has been betrayed, but in different ways. Repeated challenges to a game of squash suggest a test of alpha male supremacy. Remaining faithful to a lover doesn't quite override cheating on a spouse.
The acting may be good, but what's the point?
The show's eight short scenes are separated by interludes, allowing the stage crew to rearrange basic furniture into new settings. They're efficient at what they do, but the breaks only further alienate the action.