Among the myriad of cultural offers this summer in the multitude of venues throughout the pastoral Berkshires, there is one theatrical event especially worthy of note. Just a few miles off the Mass Pike, deep in the estate of novelist Edith Wharton, Shakespeare and Company, now in their 20th season, has mounted a rich and fascinating production of Harold Pinters BETRAYAL. Suspenseful, lyrical, human, and complex, BETRAYAL is perhaps just the kind of theatre Edith Wharton would have loved in her opulent upstairs parlour on a cool midsummer's night.
Written in 1978, BETRAYAL represents one of Pinters last producable plays for the stage, having written the body of what are considered his finest plays before 1972. And while BETRAYAL is a slight departure from those qualities that usually describe Pinter work, it is this departure that makes BETRAYAL as accessible and powerful as it is. In his vintage work from the 1950's and 1960's like THE DUMB WAITER, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, and THE HOMECOMING, Pinter presents everyday situations that gradually take on an air of mystery or menace, propelled by unexplained, unrevealed, or ambiguous motivations. BETRAYAL is less cryptic and more causal than the rest, and, despite telling this story in reverse order, the first scene taking place in the spring of 1977 and the last in the winter of 1968, BETRAYAL is relatively straight-forward and logical.
The plot concerns married couple Robert and Emma, and their life-long friend Jerry. Robert and Jerry were friends even before Roberts marriage to Emma, and the long complication that is their three lives endures year after year as Jerry and Emma have a nine year love affair. In typical Pinter fashion, this secretive threesome is placed in a series of confined spaces, a quality made all the more poignant in the intimate Wharton parlour, seating about 80 people, in a breezy room overlooking the terrace.
The impact of these three people lies in the fact that Pinter, who himself stylistically falls somewhere between Beckett and Chekhov, orchestrates an emotional mix of isolated, anxious characters against a realistic backdrop where language often disguises deeper conflicts. Some of the nine scenes appear amusing or pleasantly ambiguous, a quality that elicited a great deal of intermittent laughter from the audience, but gradually the tone of the three entangled friends changes to anxiety, pathos, and sometimes fear. Director and cast clearly met such challenges head on, in execution, physical life, and especially language.
Actors Corinna May, Allyn Burrows, Dan McCleary, and even Marc Scipione who splits between Italian waiter and narrator, admirably and appropriately perform BETRAYAL the way musicians might tackle a disjunct sonata or a haunting quartet, with much technical skill and emotional bravery. The world of BETRAYAL is a world with more questions than answers, and where what is not said is as important as what is said. Here, the silence is an integral part of the language just as the stillness is a crucial part of the physical life. May, Burrows, and McCleary handle these pauses and lurchy changes in tone and time signature with surprise and expectancy.
All three central characters seem torn between two loves, and some times three.
May plays Emma as an oft stiff, frequently cold woman, who appropriately softens as the scenes progress backward in time. May is lovely and controlled, and though her strongest moments were when less reserved and more demonstrative, her Emma is the picture of containment and reserved passion. Burrows plays the role of Jerry, the "best friend" to both Robert and Emma, having served as best man at their wedding. Burrows is handsome and more innocent than you would expect from an adulterer, which is perhaps the keenest way to approach such many-layered tete-a-tetes. Always believeable and always genuine, Burrows gives an impressively honest, simple performance where lesser actors might gush or flail.
The performance I was riveted by most was Dan McClearys Robert, an intense, contained, ever-watching husband, forever heated internally or ready to boil over externally. McClearys focus and pointedness made him irresistibly watchable. Always thinking, always brewing, always giving the impression that despite being the cuckolded husband, he was the real force in the triangle to contend with. In a world of pinched dialogue and measured monologues, McClearys single loud outburst is thrillingly dramatic and stunningly desperate.
While skill and care were the hallmarks of this event, I felt some moments were either missed or unnecessarily confusing. In a brilliant turn, Pinter places the two moments of inciting passion at the very end of the play so we realize that all along we have been witnessing the strained residue of unrequited love that never meshed honestly and was therefore forced to enjoin dishonestly for nine years. May and Burrows, however, choose to underplay the crucial 'hinge" moments in scenes eight and nine when they honestly entertain the notion of divorcing their own mates and getting together themselves, all for a less heartbreaking effect.
And while Noels direction is powerful in its sparsity and engaging in its economy, I had to wonder why such skilled actors were kept from performing the play with an appropriate British dialect, especially given the fact that the story remained filled with British idiom like "smashing," "a few quid," "bloke," references to "the Lake District," etc. And while memory and the progression of time was crucial to understand BETRAYAL, as it is in many Pinter plays, Scipiones announcing of the first scene as taking place in "the present" after reading in the program that the play opens in 1977 only made the chronology of events confusing . Another conventional reading of this play, though unexplored in this production, is the question of an intimate relationship between the two men. On this sexual front, Noel noticably demurred.
That said, Noel and cast tell a multi-dimensional story with great control and care. The sold-out house on the fourth of July was wrapt, listening more intently to this chopped, staccato dialogue than I have seen in the theatre in a long time.
Broken only by an intermission of tea and cakes, this one hour and 45 minute play is well worth the two hour drive to get there. This skillful BETRAYAL only whets my appetite to see other of the 15 Shakespeare and Company offerings between now and November 1.