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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Ethel Barrymore


  Rafe Spall, Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig/ Ph: Brigitte Lacombe

Here’s the extraordinary contradiction/paradox/surprise – call it what you will – about the peculiar revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which has taken New York (in commercial terms, anyway) by storm. This is the first of the three Betrayals in New York theater history to feature even a single Briton in the cast, and it is also the first to be directed by an American – Mike Nichols, as opposed to David Leveaux and Peter Hall in previous go-rounds.
And the puzzling truth of the matter is that all the authenticity in the world in accent terms and the like can’t disguise the fundamental betrayal at this staging’s core: the way in which Pinter’s shimmering and subversive 1978 text has landed with a decidedly and disconcertingly tin ear.
Nichols’ production does have its virtues, chief among them a genuinely mesmeric performance from Daniel Craig, who is the best thing about the evening, as he was about A Steady Rain a few seasons ago. As Robert, the apparently amiable but quite possibly violent publisher whose wife, Emma, has been having an affair with his best friend, Jerry, Craig brings to the proceedings a singular mixture of the alluring and the dangerous. How much does Robert know at any one time about his wife’s dalliances, and to what extent does he let that knowledge slip? Craig lends a galvanically forensic intelligence to the part of a man who can make the mere mention of a game of squash sound like an indication of far darker forces at work. At one point, as Robert moves towards his wife, the audience is unsure whether he’s going to embrace her or do her harm.
Elsewhere, such necessary intrigue has been displaced by a rather pushy approach that tends to neutralize the potentially devastating role of Emma – played here by Craig’s real-life wife, Rachel Weisz, making a muted Broadway debut in the part in which a Tony-nominated Blythe Danner shone in 1980 – and reduces Jerry (arguably the hardest role of the three) to a quasi-buffoon. Rafe Spall in that part is a likable presence as ever, and his beard hides the fact that the actor in real life is way too young to be a contemporary of Craig’s (the two men are 15 years apart). 
But all the overt canoodling on view between Spall and Weisz never once suggests the fatal attraction that amounts to one of the various betrayals signaled by the text, another being the way in which life’s quotidian routine can itself conceal the landscape of loss and desolation to which a drunken Jerry unwittingly pays homage at the end. That end, as everyone must know by now, is in this play the beginning, given a reverse-chronology structure that rewinds events across nine years, even as various scenes do in fact follow on from the one before (the first two, for instance).
The design, too, seems overly fussy and self-conscious for a play that needs to work by suggestion and implication, not overkill. From our opening glimpse of Weisz in thigh-high leather boots as an anxious Emma meets Jerry at a London pub two years after their affair has come to an end, this denizen of the gallery world looks like a fashion plate on her perpetual way to (or from) the Oscars, with a passing nod to the London advent of the hippie-era musical, Hair, from which Emma’s final-scene kaftan could have come. The designer, Ann Roth, is one of Hollywood’s greats, but it seems odd to come away from Betrayal of all plays bothered by the characters’ clothes.
Nichols himself remarked in a fascinating radio interview prior to the Broadway opening that he had been in the frame to direct the (very good) film version of this play that ended up in the hands of the late David Jones, with Ben Kingsley in especially commanding form in the role Craig has now. That in turn would suggest a long-time acquaintanceship with a quiet play’s implosive workings that are at odds with the hyperactivity on view here. (The final, very specific stage direction is entirely ignored in favor of a fevered, frantic erotic clinch that seems not at all Pinter-like.)
Performed as the play must be straight through, Betrayal has numerous scene changes that – New York being New York – give the audience ample opportunity to voice their thoughts. “I didn’t know this was supposed to be a comedy,” I heard the couple behind me remarking to one another during one or another of Spall’s sudden surges of stage busy-ness. I didn’t have the heart to turn and inform them that, in fact, it’s not.


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