Harold Pinter denies he based his 1978 drama on a seven-year affair he had with a married woman. And that her husband, a friend of his, had affairs all the while — and knew about theirs for several years.
Whether true or not, a similar triangle runs through Betrayal, but with a difference: the play unfolds backwards. It begins with reunions in 1977: one between ex-lovers Emma and Jerry; the other, Jerry and Emma’s soon-to-be ex-husband Robert. Then it moves back in time to Emma and Jerry’s official break-up, and further back, ending at the beginning, with young Jerry whoppingly in love with his best friend’s wife.
Betrayals occur in all nine scenes: multiple infidelities (Jerry’s unseen wife, Judith, may be “seeing” a doctor); betrayal of friends and family; of ideals; and ultimately of oneself.
Memory also betrays. “There are some things one remembers,” Pinter wrote, “even though they may never have happened.” Jerry’s fondest, of playfully tossing a child up in the air, didn’t take place where he recalls. Memory can also betray by being accurate, when one would prefer, as Jerry says, “a state of catatonia” about the past.
Since we see the outcome first, Betrayal raises the Watergate question: “what did you know, and when did you know it?” Was Robert aware all along? Or was naïve Jerry right that no one suspects? Also, what is true? Just how good a writer is Casey, the oft-mentioned, never seen novelist now becoming Emma’s latest lover? Or have they been lovers all along?
The more we try to unscramble events told backwards, the more our memories betray us.
With one exception, the North Coast Rep’s staging, directed by Frank Corrado, is mostly competent. Marty Burnett solves scene changes with sliding doors and furniture moving on a revolve. The choice underscores Pinter’s minimalist technique, and how the play circles back in time. Alina Bokovikova’s period costumes also time-machine, from 1977 to 1968 (overhead projections tell time and place).
As Emma and Jerry, Carla Harting and Jeffrey Fracé do capable work, but their scenes together fall on the bland side. Their “Pinteresque” pauses aren’t all that “pregnant” and are rarely alert to the ways a question can have two senses: the second relating to the affair they try to hide, or, as the play says, the “pip pip pip” of it.
The exception is Richard Baird’s Robert. Solemn, ironic, then suddenly molten, the performance is so detailed it’s a hall of mirrors. Does Robert care? Did he ever? Or even – does he care too much, still, and is his apparent nihilism yet another surface, masking deeper betrayals? Or would he rather just play squash?
Baird is also heroically funny in scene seven, which you could label “In Corvo Bianco veritas.” After too much cartoony business with a waiter (half would integrate it better and still be humorous), Robert probes Jerry about Emma and about himself. Along the way he drinks — nay guzzles — most of a bottle of white wine. Then orders another and downs most of that! In the process, the incrementally swacked Robert lets truths come out. Or, in Baird’s expert hands, do they?