Watching Lantern Theater Company’s frustratingly undercooked production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, I made an unexpected mental connection—to Noël Coward’s Design for Living. Though Pinter may have deliberately riffed on the earlier play (some plot details are unlikely to be mere coincidence), I doubt the comparison would please him. He was a playwright who wore his left-wing politics on his sleeve and, in his early works especially, identified with a working-class roughness very far from the soigné charms of Coward’s Beautiful People.
Yet the two works are strikingly similar. Each involves two men and a woman, all of them notably successful and attractive. They are connected through sexual alliances both socially acceptable and not. (Coward’s 1932 play was quite shockingly forthright in its depiction of polymorphous attraction; Pinter, among the most heterosexual of playwrights, hints at this in Betrayal but retreats almost instantly.)
Most importantly, Betrayal—like Design—shows us the souring disappointments that can tank even the most affluent lives. Here, Emma (Geneviève Perrier) is married to Robert (Gregory Isaac) but cheating with Robert’s friend, Jerry (Jered McLenigan). Although attraction is certainly a motivating factor, we sense even more that all three are bored with the status quo and seek something—anything, really—that will make them feel alive again.
At least, that’s my impression. In typical Pinter fashion, Betrayal leaves questions unanswered and details rather vague. The playwright is famous for long pauses that deliberately destabilize the audience. What is actually said through dialogue is often superficial. Here, that includes a tiresome litany of luxurious pastimes, from trips to Torcello to dining in fancy restaurants (Surprise!: Robert is a wine snob and belittles waiters), to (Lord have mercy) recreational squash games. The unspoken subtext is where things really happen.
Except that at Lantern, Kathryn MacMillan’s generalized production offers little beneath that manicured surface. The set (by Meghan Jones) is elegant but sparse, barely suggesting actual rooms or places. The performances also fail to catch fire.
Perrier does best. Her piquant presence suggests something deeper going on underneath, but it never fully reveals itself. McLenigan mines a broad comic style more suitable for Alan Ayckbourn—here, it evokes mood-killing laughs and dilutes any sense of sexual tension. Not that the handsome but stiff Isaac provides much charisma either. He stands around with one hand fake-casually inserted in a pocket and the other holding a drink: even in his own home, he looks like he’s modeling suits for a Botany 500 ad.
The latter underscores a bigger problem. One of several important factors that are unrealized is Pinter’s shifts of action: from pubs and restaurants to living rooms, to secluded but unfamiliar love nests. With each, we should also detect changes in behavior—we are, of course, not the same people in public that we are in private. Seen here, no matter where Emma, Jerry, and Robert go, their narcissistic glumness remains the same. My overall takeaway was a rush of relief when the show ended, and I was finally freed from the clutches of these tiresome, pretentious, empty characters. Miserable, wealthy white people. Been there, done that.
That net effect is, I think, very far from what Pinter intended—yet the fault may belong more to him than the production. The world has moved on, and the passing years have not been kind to Pinter’s work. (The playwright died in 2008, three years after winning a questionable Nobel Prize for Literature.) Those famous pregnant pauses, once so daringly dangerous, now feel merely tedious. Who has the time?
Betrayal plays at the Lantern Theater through February 17. For more information, visit the website.
Categories: Criticism, Philadelphia, Theater
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