There is a moment in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which stars Daniel Craig (007) and his wife Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) as a couple who cheat on one another, that may well determine whether you find Mike Nichol’s Broadway production “stunning,” as many have, or “crude and clunky,“ as at least one did. It is the very end of the play, which is actually the beginning of Emma’s adulterous affair with Jerry (Rafe Spall), Robert’s best friend, since the play moves backwards chronologically.
It is 1968, and Jerry and Emma are drunk and high and in a back bedroom at a party, Robert has just left the room, and Jerry more or less attacks Emma. She resists for a second, then they kiss passionately.
In the script, however, Pinter’s stage direction for this moment says: “They stand still, looking at each other.”
Director Mike Nichols takes liberties. The alcohol pours freely, designer Ian MacNeil’s sets glide aerodynamically into place, the actors shed British reserve to shout and grab and, instead of staring, kiss…and couple. This is a more external, more explicit, production of what is already Pinter’s most accessible play. For me, what’s lost in subtlety is gained in clarity. Even Ann Roth’s costumes help to explain the characters’ behavior, especially the flowing red hippie-inspired dress that Emma wears in 1968: The seven-year affair between Jerry and Emma began in an era that encouraged free love/sexual licentiousness.
There were several such revelations to me in this revival of a 1978 play about three civilized characters – Robert is a publisher, Emma a gallery owner, Jerry a literary agent – ruled more than they admit by their libido. The adulterous affair between Jerry and Emma is front and center in the nine scenes that move from 1977 to 1968; Jerry and Emma even get an apartment together, and fully furnish it, in order to spend each afternoon together. But their affair is only one in the multiple layers of lying and cheating in which the characters engage.
Granted, there is satisfaction in piecing together the puzzle of the characters’ interaction on one’s own — this is a play that doesn’t need to be performed to be appreciated – rather than having the director be quite so graphic and instructive.
While many have been drawn to this third Broadway production of Betrayal for reasons other than, say, a love of Pinter, the three main actors (there is a fourth who plays a waiter in one scene) deliver arresting performances on the stage. These are not slumming screen stars. We see the characters transform (backwards) before our eyes: Craig’s indifferent attitude unravels into anger, resentment, hurt; Weisz’s reserve collapses into a naivete that makes her an easy target; Spall guilt turns to puppy-doggish enthusiasm and then to a drunken sort of mercenary aggression. Spall’s is the most surprising of these performances, if for no other reason that that he is least-known of the actors; his credits include the writer in Life of Pi, but it says something that he might be best known as the son of Timothy Spall, who played the rodent Wormtail in Harry Potter.
In a world where Julius Caesar can be set in a modern women’s prison and Romeo wear a pumpkin head, surely there is room for an intelligent, relatively minimal reworking of a play only 35 years old, by a playwright just five years dead.
Ethel Barrymore Theater
By Harold Pinter; directed by Mike Nichols; sets by Ian MacNeil; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Scott Lehrer; music by James Murphy; video by Finn Ross; hair, wigs and makeup design by Campbell Young and Luc Verschueren
Cast: Daniel Craig (Robert), Rachel Weisz (Emma), Rafe Spall (Jerry) and Stephen DeRosa (Waiter).
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Betrayal is scheduled to run through January 5.