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There's a lot of posturing in director Woody Hill's staging of Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Rather too much posturing, actually. Given an intriguing theme and an even more intriguing framework within which to stage the play, Hill opts for a stark presentation suffused in its own bitterness. The director seems to strike a flat emotional pitch in all the players of this production, and most emotional nuances are, as a result, lost. In Betrayal, rigid staging unfortunately replaces audience interpretation with directorial determinism.
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Woody Hill
At the Loeb Experimental Theater
through October 6
This minimalist approach succeeded last year in Hill's bleak staging of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, because it reflected the barrenness of Beckett's verbal landscape. But in a show about the foibles of human emotion and the intricacies of deception, more natural and sympathetic direction is required. The audience may laugh at the characters in Betrayal, but Hill ensures that we will never empathize.
But whatever the directorial interpretation, Betrayal remains a riveting play. This is largely due to the regressive action; Pinter begins at the end and shifts backwards through time. The nine scenes in Betrayal trace the collapse, decline, and eventual establishment of an affair between Jerry (John Ducey) and Emma (Reid Cottingham), the wife of Jerry's best friend Robert (Glenn Kiser).
When we first meet the illicit couple, their affair has been over for two years; subsequent vignettes show Robert's discovery of their love, the moments in a rented flat in which Jerry and Emma attempt to create their own alternative household, and, finally, the drunken winter party at which Emma is unable to resist Jerry's passionate advances.
Not only does this unique constraint provide the audience with moments of conspiratorial delight (we know, for example, that Robert has discovered the affair before Jerry knows), but it also invests the final, earliest scene with a sense of pathos that would be absent in a more traditional arranging of the play's events. This affair is, quite literally, doomed from the start, and the convincing passion which Ducey and Cottingham demonstrate in the play's final scenes elicits our sympathy in one of the play's few genuinely touching moments.
Another intriguing aspect of Pinter's script is the various levels at which the characters "betray" each other and their attitudes towards betrayal in general. Kiser's Robert viciously internalizes the bitterness which the affair has engendered in him, but refuses to acknowledge it in himself. He maintains an outwardly stable friendship with Jerry, meeting him regularly for lunch. At the same time, he issues a misogynist tirade about "girl babies" that is a thinly veiled attack on Emma. Kiser's tense, self-controlled performance is inarguably the show's most memorable.
As Emma, Cottingham advances a different theory on betrayal. She has no qualms about betraying Robert, because she doesn't love him. But she is shocked when she discovers his own infidelity. Cottingham gives a dignified performance, and the moments in which she basks in the short-lived happiness the flat provides her are a joy to watch.
Jerry has perhaps the play's most complex views on the topic, but Ducey unfortunately gives the most wooden performance. He has strong material with which to work; Jerry's insistence that he is bothered only by the revelation of deceit rather than the deceit itself is fascinating. But Ducey spends so much time staring at the floor or posing like James Dean that he manages to hold the audience's attention only sporadically.
This sort of stage artifice is Betrayal's central problem: every poignant gesture is extended beyond its natural limits, every subtle shade is obliterated by the stark interpretation. Even the harsh lighting creates a visual over-simplification on the stage. Betrayal is a first-rate script with an ingenious plot, and the acting in this production is generally admirable. But its black and white interpretation leaves us longing for a touch of gray.
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