by Seth Rogovoy
(NEW YORK CITY, N.Y., October 24, 2019) – Seeing the revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal currently on Broadway (at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, directed by Jamie Lloyd, running through December 8), reminds a theatergoer of the pleasures to be found in pure drama. By that I mean drama that isn’t about anything other than what it is – no more than actors playing characters saying things to each other, occasionally gesturing or moving around, indicating thoughts and feelings through (in this case) the masterful manipulations of the puppeteer-like playwright. The actors don’t really act beyond bringing Pinter’s words to life; the director doesn’t really direct beyond insuring that Pinter’s poetry and prose isn’t violated by theatricality – he’s the least “theatrical” of playwrights, after all – and that the production is staged fully in support of the language, that its only goal is to put Pinter’s closed world onstage for ninety minutes and trust that the audience will remain engaged from beginning to end. Which, of course, they will, if it’s done right.
Which it is in this production, appropriately as spare and minimalist as Pinter’s script. The set is an ambient gray wall; the stage is blank except for the occasional addition of a chair or table; a revolving deck is used sparingly but effectively to suggest the passage of time and its circularity. The three stellar actors – Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox, and the phenomenal Zawe Ashton – hardly act, not in the sense of representing layers of emotional conflict, but in that they rely on the precision of Pinter’s text to convey the emotional truths of the characters they “play.”
Pinter does all the heavy lifting here. His formal innovation – having the story unfold backwards in time – shapes and determines how the story is understood – not that there is much to understand here anyway (assuming you are a sentient, English-speaking human being). The title tells pretty much all – it shows betrayal, how people easily (or not so easily) betray each other, their best friends and lovers, and how easily they betray themselves, through telling themselves lies often enough so that the lie becomes a kind of truth. It’s not “about” anything or than what it is; it doesn’t need to be. It isn’t “relevant”; its situation isn’t torn from yesterday’s headlines; nor is it a pale excuse of an op-ed piece disguised as a play. It doesn’t moralize or judge the characters or the audience; it’s not some annual church skit or pagan ritual (although there is definitely something pagan and ritualistic about how the characters deal with each other). There’s plenty of witty conversation – Pinter’s dialogue dazzles – of books, publishing, sports, and travel. It’s an enjoyable ride and it’s devastating, as emotionally devastating today as it was on the day it opened in 1978. It is timeless, like Shakespeare and the Greeks, untethered to any place, untied to any socio-historic context. It could have been staged in the agora, and, if we weren’t heading 90 miles an hour toward extinction, it could well have played thoughtfully a thousand years from now.
I suppose it would be churlish to use Pinter to bash so much of what passes for contemporary drama – the topical, TV-inspired setups that use cardboard characters (why not just dispense with actors and use mannequins?) in the service of manipulating the social conscience of theatergoers. I suppose there’s a place for that, especially if it reaches audiences who need or like that sort of thing. Ninety-nine times out of 100, however, it’s artless, boring, or even philistine – a betrayal of the great promise offered by the opportunity to put actors on a stage and have them speak and interact in ways that aren’t about anything more than what it means to be human. I’d like to say, isn’t that enough? But of course, the reality is that promise, that hope, that goal, has been largely and almost completely abandoned. And that is theater’s and our great loss.