The Huntington Theatre Company tackles one of Harold Pinter’s so-called "memory plays" with intelligent cinematic flair.
The company’s production of "Betrayal" honors the script’s unconventional structure (the play starts at the story’s end, then jumps us back and forth to different points in time throughout the previous seven years) by narrowing in on a pinpoint-specific setting for the first scene, in which Jerry (Alan Cox) and Emma (Gretchen Egolf) meet at a pub. The scene plays out in a handsomely appointed booth; physically and narratively, our attention is focused and concentrated in this limited space in a way quite in contrast with the expansive sets used for the rest of the play.
This is appropriate since only the first scene takes place in a "present time" set in 1977. Jerry and Emma had an ongoing love affair for five years, and even shared an apartment. The twist? Emma was married to Jerry’s colleague and best friend, Robert (Mark H. Dold) throughout that time.
As the play takes us back to select scenes from the past ("Three Years Earlier," "One Year Earlier," etc.) the sets, by scenic designer Allen Moyer, become larger and more abstract, with furnishings set against a blank background. There’s far more room for movement here, just as there is more room for interpretation in memory than in the present moment.
Pinter’s barbed writing is pointed, but offers a certain sort of flexibility, both morally and narratively. Memory is inherently flawed, biased, and fictionalized, be it ever so lightly. But memory also acts as a means by which to take a step back from the facts of a situation and examine its many facets; the ways in which memory falsifies event, Pinter’s play suggests, are balanced by the way memory allows us to consider broader truths.
Jerry and Emma "betrayed" Robert for years, but it’s only when Emma discovers Robert’s infidelities, the night before the opening scene, that their marriage ends; what’s sauce for the goose, in this case, is not for the gander to imbibe. Moreover, Robert knew about the affair for years without ever mentioning it to Jerry; indeed, at one juncture he tells Emma that he likes Jerry better than he likes her. Does their business partnership form a bond that’s stronger than matrimony? Or does Robert simply take Emma’s long-term fling as tacit permission for him to indulge in exploits of his own?
The only set we see more than once is the apartment that Jerry and Emma share on the sly. In later times the place is set up comfortably, complete with a tablecloth Emma brought back from Italy... a vacation during which, we learn, she confessed everything to Robert. In earlier days, the apartment is more sparsely appointed. But is this, too, a function of memory? Does the scene of so many illicit afternoons and evenings grow more lavish with recollection as though the accumulation of experience and time registered as the acquisition of more creature comforts?
By the time we reach the affair’s very beginning -- which marks the end of the play -- we’re no longer sure of anything. Who is actually betraying whom? Which marriage is most real and compelling -- the legal bonds between Robert and Emma, or the transgressive and heartfelt connection between Emma and Jerry? Where should our sympathies lie? Has the situation arisen out of compromise, or passion, or boredom, or what? It feels like no coincidence that a groovy 1960s-era party is raging when the first spark is struck; but can we really chalk it all up to beads and free love?
Questions like these have been treated by playwrights before ("Design for Living" by Noel Coward, for instance), but Pinter seems less interested in prescribing or even describing than in seeking some rare and transient vantage from which to observe, summarize, and comprehend. Perhaps that, too, is something that belongs most fully to the realm of memory, and this production, directed by Maria Aitken, almost seems to float outside of time and place, aided by a lovely, emotionally evocative score by John Gromada and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design.