The third time’s the charm for me and Betrayal on Broadway. As True West is to Sam Shepard, this play is to Harold Pinter: a “crowd-pleaser” – or so it would be, if any of the last three New York productions (the original, in 1980, followed by the 2000 and 2013 revivals) had truly pleased crowds. I missed the debut, but all fell flat to some degree or another, leaving the quietly riveting 1983 film version (unfortunately obscure today) to hint at how it might click onstage. Here at last we have it – direct from London, a fully enveloping, even exhilarating, Betrayal.
A good part of it is the actors, who are younger, sexier and hungrier than their predecessors. It’s the exciting staging, however, that charges this Betrayal. No stranger to Pinter, director Jamie Lloyd has done away with cumbersome sets that impede its famous “backwards” storytelling, tracing an affair from its end to its beginning years earlier. Scenic and costume designer Soutra Gilmour has kept the production to a bare minimum of a light-absorbing back wall, two chairs, a bit of other furniture and projections to note the slippage of time … plus a stunningly effective use of turntables, ideal for a romantic roundelay, and so subtle you may not notice their deployment at first. Soutra and lighting designer Jon Clark have given the Jacobs’ stage a framing reminiscent of widescreen CinemaScope, with no space empty for long. The three leads are onstage throughout, conjuring a zone where past and present comingle.
Betrayal may not be the equal of, say, The Caretaker or The Homecoming, and in an era where time-shifting is the norm in plots throughout the arts, the reverse chronology may feel old hat. Nor can enticing stage pictures compensate for the miscasting that made the last two productions feel far longer than 90 minutes. Casting two veterans of the Marvel universe, Tom (Loki) Hiddleston and Charlie (Daredevil) Cox, as husband Robert and lover Jerry, seems like a stunt, but the actors disappear into the parts with a politely combative intensity that’s, well, superhuman. Wrongly interpreted wife Emma can shrink to an onlooker in her own affair. This isn’t the case with the bewitching Zawe Ashton, however. There’s a dangerous eroticism to this Emma, and to this Emma and Robert, who strike real sparks despite disturbing tension that the more domesticated Jerry relieves. To underline how free-spirited she is, see what Ashton is wearing on her feet. It will surprise you.
There are surprises throughout Betrayal, reinvigorating the play as it crackles along. Periodically a female voice languorously sings a verse or two from a Depeche Mode song you may not recognize, “Enjoy the Silence.” For once you can enjoy the silence in this particular Pinter, and everything else about it, too.