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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Harold Pinter's Betrayal

Review by Anthony Chase

three people
Anthony Alcocer, Aleks Malejs, and Steve Copps

The Irish Classical Theatre Company currently has Harold Pinter’s 1978 play, Betrayal on offer. Here, Pinter deploys one of his favorite devices, the love triangle. Emma is married to Robert, but is having an affair with his best friend, Jerry. Pinter further complicates this simple and familiar set-up by telling his story in reverse chronological order, beginning with a scene that takes place two years after the end of the affair, and then working backward, scene by scene, to its beginning, years before.


The wonder of watching Betrayal is not in the anticipation of what is about to happen, but in the masterful playing of the actors portraying Jerry, Emma, and Robert as they sift through their situation, uncertain options, and unreliable memories. 


On this occasion, we are treated to three of Buffalo’s finest actors, under the direction of Greg Natale: Anthony Alcocer as Jerry, Aleks Malejs as Emma, and Steve Copps as Robert


Some people enjoy saying that they are bewildered by the plays of Harold Pinter. He shares that status with playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Eugene Ionesco, and Suzan-Lori Parks. These are writers who push the boundaries of theatrical convention to take on lesser explored aspects of human experience, often exposing the absurdities and contradictions of life.


But Pinter. The spareness of the dialogue. The narrative ambiguity, and oh, those lengthy pauses! 


In production, I often find these plays disturbing, but I seldom find them bewildering in any way.


While Pinter uses the device of reverse chronology brilliantly in Betrayal, he did not invent it. For instance, J.B. Priestley’s 1937 play, Time and the Conways similarly moves backward in time. So does the 1934 Kaufman and Hart play, Merrily We Roll Along, (as does the Sondheim and Furth musicalized version).

Pinter’s innovation is that in telling his story backwards, he manipulates the mechanics of the well-made play, which requires a plot based on facts known by the audience but not known by some or all the characters. By starting his play at the end of the story, Pinter endows the audience with knowledge of the future. Scene by scene, moment by moment, we know everything before any of the characters in the play does.

Or do we? 


The play’s opening scene provides the following exchange, complete with one of Pinter’s signature pauses:


JERRY: …. I had an affair for seven years and none of you bastards had the faintest idea it was happening.


EMMA: I wonder. I wonder if everyone knew, all the time.

To what extent is anyone’s life knowable, to what extent can any secret be protected, and how much can we depend upon memory at all? Hindsight bias influences our highly subjective appraisals of past events. Emma and Jerry cannot even agree about whose kitchen they were in when a shared memory involving both their families occurred. The insight that working backward brings to Pinter’s play is the awareness that everyone keeps secrets and that memory is unreliable. Among the surprises woven into the play’s fabric of deceit is the revelation that poor cheated-upon Robert might well be the most slippery and deceptive character of all. Or not.

The simplicity of the play’s surface story is, itself, a deception. Wife and best friend have an affair that is eventually exposed. After the affair ends, the marriage also dissolves. But there is more to this than that linear thread of narrative. 


The influence of Anton Chekhov on Pinter’s work is obvious. Indeed, Pinter, admired the reality and ambiguity of Chekhov’s work, as well as his fascination with life’s banality, explored through indirect action and psychologically conflicted characters. In this context, so much of what might seem elusive about Pinter immediately reveals itself to be crystal clear. What happens is secondary to why and how. This reality permeates every sparce utterance of the play. 


Consider the opening lines.


JERRY -- Well . . .

EMMA -- How are you?

JERRY -- All right.

EMMA -- You look well.


“Well . . .”? Is that all he gets? What is the subtext of “Well . . .”? Is Jerry resigned to be there, or delighted? Is he wondering why he’s there? Does he resent being there? Does he have something he wants to tell Emma?


“How are you?” Is that casual small talk, or is there urgency to the question? Jerry’s response seems perfunctory, or evasive, or is he actually “all right”?


Every word of the play requires this sort of scrutiny. In the talented hands of Alcocer, Malejs, and Copps, we get a very capable interpretation of the play as we move fluidly between the succession of nine scenes.  


Alcocer brings great joy and ardor to Jerry, the character who, we will learn, initiated the affair. The quality that allows him to justify betraying his best friend is left unstated, and we are left only to see how the affair and the deceptions play out. Whereas Emma and Robert are a married couple, we never see Jerry’s wife, a successful physician named Judith. The clues to so much in Pinter, lie in what he leaves out. 


As Emma, Malejs creates a woman searching for more. She runs a gallery, but nothing in her life seems as vivid and urgent as the deals and schemes of the men. She can always find ways to be available to Jerry. He seems, always, to be at a distance. 


Copps gives a nuanced performance as Robert, the most ambiguously and elusively written of the characters. The scene in which he almost tenderly reveals to Emma that he knows about her affair with Jerry, is remarkable for its painfulness. And yet, can we take this at face value? In the opening scene we were told that Robert had other women throughout the marriage. Can that be true? If so, he is actually toying with Emma, and his gentle interrogation takes on a note of sadism.


While this is a strong production, it does tend to coast on the formidable talents of its most adept and talented cast. Their skill is what drives the production, rather than that awe-inspiring precision for which the text begs. The large gestures are delivered with great assurance and flair. The subtle emphasis on the details we will need to remember later; the insights into the subtleties of character that come only from the precision of surgical analysis of every word, pause, and gesture are only delivered intuitively and in flashes. 


Costumes by Vivian Del Bello look good and clearly define the characters. They are appropriately timeless on the men, but not on Malejs, particularly a pair of boldly and specifically patterned pants that she apparently wore for years. The set by Spencer Dick is serviceable without amplifying any aspect of the text. Light by Jason Clark and sound by Tom Makar are excellent.


John Profeta provides levity and the suggestion of a world outside this insular love triangle as a waiter.


This proficient production of Betrayal continues through March 17th.


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