‘Betrayal’ Falls Flat Due to Emotionless Acting

There’s a heartbreaking ache in Jerry’s voice when he says, “I don’t need to think of you anymore,” to his longtime lover, Emma, signifying the official end of their seven-year affair. However, this is one of the only believable moments in “Betrayal”—a show running at the Boston University Theatre through December 9. The production is plagued with bland, uneven performances, had it not been for the excellent direction by Maria Aitken, the Huntington Theatre Company’s 80-minute revival of “Betrayal” would have been completely forgettable and boring.

Told in reverse chronology, “Betrayal” depicts a love affair between Jerry (Alan Cox) and Emma (Gretchen Egolf)—who is married to Jerry’s best friend Robert (Mark H. Dold). The play begins at the end of their relationship and travels back all the way to their first romantic encounter while slowly revealing important segments of the infidelity in nine scenes.

Although Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter won an Olivier Award for “Betrayal,” an honest reflection on his own seven-year extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell, the narrative in this production is weighed down by scenes where the characters gossip like middle schoolers. However, the he-said-she-said games that are supposed to serve as comic relief ultimately come off as annoying because these scenes lack the necessary energy to bring them to life.

The play’s themes of deception and guilt are also never communicated fully to the audience due to the actors’ inability to fully explore their characters emotional states, . For example, in the scene where Jerry first professes his love for Emma, he begins to compliment her with drunken, slurred speech, delivered in a flat monotone that makes his words seem insincere. This scene demands raw human emotion, but Cox seems merely to recite his lines from memory rather than conveying his character’s lustful and alcohol-driven desire for his best friend’s wife. Cox finally delivers a successful line when he reacts to Emma’s confession with an incredulous “Sorry?” that combines all of his underlying impatience and frustration. In another scene, Egolf’s stiff performance stands out in negative contrast to the way Dold quivers when speaking his lines. This uneven performance falls short of what the scene requires emotionally.

Some of the more redeeming characteristics of the production include the lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg and the scenic design by Allen Moyer. The combination of a simple set with the complex human emotions on stage is a well-executed juxtaposition; the minimalist set pieces are necessary for the audience to understand the confusing reverse chronology of the play. At the beginning of each scene the blackboards open, and then they close at the end like a camera shutter taking a snapshot of each important moment of Jerry and Emma’s adulterous relationship. Additionally, a number—either a year or a phrase such as “one year earlier”—is projected on the boards before they open, elegantly giving each vignette a specific temporal context.

The lighting hues also add symbolism to the play: a comfortable orange shade accompanies the scenes between Jerry and Emma and a harsh white color accompanies the scenes that include Robert, the almost blinding light forcing the characters to step out of their blissful daze and confront their reality. As the spotlights travel away from the actors, only the outlines of their dark figures are left behind as the boards close at the end of every scene. This effect offers a poignant reflection on the deteriorating relationships of the play.

Overall, “Betrayal” only manages to succeed in certain moments when the actors honestly express their characters’ inner feelings. This show makes it clear that when a play dealing with human emotions and passions is carried by technical elements rather than the acting, the production needs to do some serious reevaluation.

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