Are these Pinter times?

The playwright's patented sourceless anxiety is well captured in the Rep's production of 'Betrayal,' closing this week.
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A love affair told backwards in the Rep's 'Betrayal'

The playwright's patented sourceless anxiety is well captured in the Rep's production of 'Betrayal,' closing this week.

What accounts for the quiet popularity of Harold Pinter'ꀙs Betrayal, that allowed the Seattle Rep to extend its current run of the play? This is your last week to find out — the show closes March 28.

Certainly the publicity surrounding Pinter'ꀙs recent death from cancer at age 78 has boosted attendance. The 1983 film, with strong performances by Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons, and Patricia Hodge, also broadened Betrayal'ꀙs familiarity and reach. Yet Pinter'ꀙs atmosphere of claustrophobic gloom and sourceless anxiety seems ill-suited, in our own present state of collective anxious despondence, to draw crowds enough to prolong a run.

Some tickets have sold, no doubt, on good word-of-mouth about the Rep'ꀙs reliable production values, here nicely displayed on the company'ꀙs simple second stage. It'ꀙs an intimate place, a bit spare, supporting the play'ꀙs own austerity. In a fine and subtle device, movement of the upstage wall mirrors the mood. Carefully detailed period costume and hair from the 70'ꀙs and late 60'ꀙs are beautifully executed; in their changing outfits, we watch the characters grow younger a la Benjamin Button as the play moves backward in time. The era'ꀙs styles, usually staged with exuberance or to campy effect — sideburns! — here contribute to the discrete, caustic examination of the three principals'ꀙ failed lives.

But more than the production, it'ꀙs the play itself that draws continuing interest. We watch the characters betray one another and their own hopes as the tale unrolls in reverse, marching from the hollow aftermath of a love affair back through its course, perilous yet tedious, to the point of beginning. In the space between the scenes, the characters raise their families, develop their careers, cling to or abandon their ideals; on stage their short, sharp interactions give us only a few recurring details from their lives. Indeed their lives seem to lack detail: does this leached-out existence prompt their betrayals? They combat the sparseness with a few bits of scrounged-up color: a return trip to Venice, a tablecloth purchased there, writers they publish, memories of their children, yet another stiff drink.

Betrayal offers a fine counterpoint to the sprawling vehemence of Who'ꀙs Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Pinter, like Albee, shows us a small set of cultured middle-class people going to the dogs, but there'ꀙs a lot less bark and more bite. The drinking, while constant, rarely leads to an outburst; you long to see a thrown glass or hear a raised voice, but the characters, careful and constrained, play their hands close. Pinter famously based the play on a long-running affair of his own, and his willingness to air his own dirty laundry seems to pay off in the play'ꀙs odd cocktail of hope, ignorance, and rage.

In this Seattle Rep production we never see, quite, what the characters see in one another — Why are Jerry and Robert best friends? What do they love in literature that has led them to their careers as agent and publisher? Why does Robert'ꀙs wife Emma allow Jerry to seduce her? Pinter gives few clues in the text and little time on stage to explore causes and effects, as though the bare facts of the betrayals are all that we can know. The script offers painful glimpses, though, of love and the need for love, of memory'ꀙs fragility, of fear and unfulfilled desires.

Robert is a holdover from Pinter'ꀙs earlier work, bringing the menace of The Homecoming into more recognizable settings. Jerry'ꀙs is a challenging role: more enthusiastic than clever, engaging, slightly hapless, at bottom a dodger and a bounder. Emma must be vulnerable to both but a victim of neither. To capture these complex roles, all three actors must squeeze big dollops of suppressed feeling and intent into a few vacuum-packed words and pauses.

Alex Podulke'ꀙs Robert has an edge, Cheyenne Casebier as Emma is smart but vulnerable, David Christopher Wells finds Jerry'ꀙs breezy cluelessness. They could strike more sparks from one another — we need their passions constrained, not absent. But the production is sufficient and the play is necessary to see.


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