theater (reviews)

review: betrayal

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-BETRAYAL.html]

BETRAYAL

by Harold Pinter
Directed by Rick Snyder
Featuring Ian Barford, Tracy Letts, and Amy Morton
Steppenwolf Theatre Company Upstairs Theatre
1650 N. Halsted Street / (312) 335-1650 / http://www.steppenwolf.org/
Through May 27, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 9, 2007

The lovely Steppenwolf upstairs theatre and its proscenium set for this production incorporates two entrances, one room, and the rumble of frequent and committed theatre goers as one settles. “I remember when Steppenwolf was further north” and “this theatre reminds me of Lincoln Center”. In this intimate and friendly space, settle in quietly and prepare for the intense ride of Harold Pinter‘s “Betrayal“, crafted in scenes that flow in stutter step from 1977 to 1968 (yes, you’ve read your program correctly, we’re moving backwards, are we ready for this?). Each of the play’s nine scenes provides a facet of a year during the time period 1977 backward to 1968 where we first meet our characters. Some visits within years involve a sequence of temporally ordered scenes (changing the overall reverse flow of the play for a moment), providing a few additional perspectives on the characters’ introspection and honesty (or lack of either) at those particular points in time. Intimacy and intensity and reserve and angry verbal edginess will mark the ensuing 100 minute intermission less visit with these three characters. Director Rick Snyder has crafted a hard-edged gem.

In the first scene, we see that we’re beginning at the end. You will ask yourself: is this “Same Time Next Year” in reverse? A story of a set of married lovers Jerry (Ian Barford) and Emma (Amy Morton), ask each other about their spouses and children, according to habit. Then early in the scene we see the Pinter pause — the blank face presented to us onto which we can write our own intensely lived scripts. We hear the pace of the characters’ language and the rests between the notes. Soon we learn that this first scene is occurring several years after Jerry and Emma’s seven-year affair has ended, which may send you (it sent me) for the first time to the set of illuminated years adorning the upper edge of the proscenium arch to do some simple math (each year represented in the play is represented in numerals illuminated to illustrate scenic timing). This set design decision is not kitsch but essential and rooting as the closely abutted years pass by. It becomes immediately clear that the story will then not be whether Jerry and Emma will leave their spouses (we know that answer almost immediately) but what led them to get together, stay together, and leave, then to reconnect after some time. And the tone evoked by our characters and our playwright in this first scene tells us that this will NOT be a domestic comedy closely observed by Neil Simon but something else entirely.

Jerry (the lover, married before and after his affair with Emma to another woman we never meet) is most concerned even in this initial scene of the play (yet final scene of their script) with Robert (Tracy Letts), Emma’s husband, his oldest friend. Jerry is intensely focused as subsequent 1977 scenes unfold on the fact that Robert has known about the affair longer that Jerry has known he has. Through dialogue such as “I thought you knew that I knew”, and the passing gently directed pas de deux (all three are not on stage together until the fourth scene) of these three friends and lovers, more questions are raised then answered, in the best theatrical sense. Whose relationships are primary here?

This is Pinter, so expect pauses indicating depth or evasion. There are also passing references to sometimes troubling information that is presented with the same dispassionate tone: a child falls from a bicycle; there may have been domestic violence between Emma and Robert, reported by Robert to Jerry. Neither topic evokes much or any reaction. And again we wonder what action lies outside the room, underneath the words, predating the action we are seeing.

The betrayals of the play are multiple and there for the viewer to uncover: marriage, friendship, individual and personal, ethical, professional. You will find yourself examining these characters and your own life. The mostly reverse chronology of the play’s action keeps you focused on theme, on edge, looking for clues, never lulled into comfortable and familiar storytelling. We think we know where the characters’ lives have ended, we watch individual interactions unfold, but we don’t now what events happened at either end. And it is possible to construct a wide range of scenarios for each of these characters. In essence, we have learned all too little about their fundamental characters after watching them feign and parry with one another. The effect is striking and disarming.

The worlds of Pinter’s plays are usually male dominated. When female characters are present, they play on the same power level as the men. Pinter does not appear to create a distinctly female voice. Certainly, he doesn’t create a uniquely female voice in this play. To my mind, all these roles could be played by men, or all by women and the same effect achieved. This is a story about relationships and partnerships and trust. Life begins in moments; chapters begin with a touch. The final image is a gentle one of touch and light and music, a beginning and an end of a young marriage. From this moment on, the relationships among these characters will never be as simple again.

Set design by Todd Rosenthal is minimal, flexible, and effective. Original music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen is jazzy and spare and fitting. A luminous gem of a play.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 9, 2007)

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