New York City Theater
Ethel Barrymore Theater
“It’s just like old times,” says Jerry in “Betrayal,” ironically referencing not only the now-destroyed friendship he had with best buddy Robert but also another triangular Harold Pinter play. In “Old Times,” it’s two women and one man; in the current, stinging revival of “Betrayal,” it’s two men and one woman. In both, a sexual catalyst drives a wedge between relationships teetering on the edge of propriety.
The revival of the succinctly named “Betrayal” is a hot-ticket because of its stars, notably Daniel Craig as the wronged Robert. Rachel Weisz is Emma, Robert’s wife, whose decade-long affair with Jerry (a superb Rafe Spall) causes polite mayhem. Under Mike Nichols’ direction, the trio plunges into their characters with honest feelings and a bucketful of sex.
This production reveals another, usually hidden, aspect to the play, indeed to a lot of Pinter’s panoply of macho, murderous characters, from “Homecoming” to “Caretaker” to “Dumb Waiter.” When Robert and Emma fall exhausted on a bed during the drunken party that begins the affair, it’s Robert, not Emma on whom Jerry collapses. The obvious implication is Jerry sleeps with Emma because he can’t do so with best friend Robert. Indeed, feelings are hurt as much because Jerry and Robert no longer play squash together than Jerry’s having a serious relationship with Robert’s wife. Jerry is a tiger in heat, not a quietly seductive male on the prowl.
Famously, the play proceeds in reverse chronological order. Beginning with the affair’s aftermath, it reels back to that first moment of illicit contact. The question becomes not what’s happening, but how did everything go so wrong? Since this is also a play about faulty memories, mystery is at its heart.
Craig does a 180-degree turn from his Bond persona, playing Robert as someone who tamps down his instincts to howl. A caged, frightened animal, he’s both stimulated and deflated, most tellingly by the wine he devours at the cat-and-mouse restaurant scene between him and Jerry.
Weisz is also cat-like, a woman electrified by a new partner yet indifferent to consequences. Spall turns the play on its head, injecting force, passion and an endearing awkwardness into the lives of stiff upper-lip characters.
This is not your usual tense, menacing Pinter. Yet its strengths are in the suppressed power plays that represent the manipulative undertones in how even the closest of partners and friends deal with one another.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 17, 2013