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Theater Review | Meticulous costumes, sets barely save ‘Betrayal’

Published: Monday, November 26, 2012

Updated: Monday, November 26, 2012 07:11


As anyone who has ever skipped a party or crossed the street to avoid talking to an ex knows, seeing an old flame can be awkward. Such is the case of the ex-couple in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Betrayal.” In fact, as the curtain lifts to reveal a man and a woman sharing a drink in a pub, the sense of discomfort emanating from the pair and sweeping over the audience is nearly palpable. However, whether or not the pervading sense of unease is an intentional reflection of the general awkwardness found between two ex-lovers or the result of deeper distrust between the characters is less clear. Nevertheless, the pregnant pauses and sideways glances are enough to spark the attention of even the drowsiest audience member as the action begins.

Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” directed at the Huntington by Maria Aitken, deals with passion and deceit. The story is sordid and, within it, morals are questionable at best and, more often, absent entirely. Jerry (Alan Cox) and Emma (Gretchen Egolf) become lovers after they meet through Robert (Mark H. Dold), an old pal of Jerry’s who also happens to be Emma’s husband. Though the production has a relatively short run time, about 80 minutes on average and performed without an intermission, its plot spans nearly a decade. Scenes take place between 1977 and 1968, as “Betrayal” moves roughly backwards in time, ending with the very party that began the affair. Moving along a broken timeline, the piece reveals key moments between the characters as it progresses.

As Emma, Robert and Jerry move back in time, so too do the settings around them. The stage transforms frequently, helping to center the characters and audience alike in the correct atmosphere and context. The set, absolutely crucial in any rendition of “Betrayal,” is a highlight of this production. The Huntington’s stage transitions easily between Emma and Robert’s home, characterized by clean lines and modern decor, and the sparse, humble flat which Jerry rents to house illicit afternoons with Emma. Accordingly, two very different couples occupy these disparate spaces. An office packed with books, a Venice hotel room done in rich fabrics and a darkened, clothing-strewn bedroom become the framework within which love, hate, jealousy and lust breed.

Artful costumes and lighting help to augment the sense of time and context in a more subtle manner, as when clothes adhere to the proper time periods. This was a challenge given the extended time frame of the work. The clothing also communicates a sense of character and emotion: Robert’s casual jeans and leather jacket contrast nicely with Jerry’s more traditional manner of dress. Emma, buttoned-up and reserved toward the end of the affair, is clothed more romantically in light, simple dresses at its start. Similarly, the lighting helps enhance the mood with warm hues for moments of passion and cool light when interactions grow strained or cold.

Despite the advantage of such carefully crafted elements, this performance of production did have a few truly awkward moments unrelated to the plot. The chemistry between the actors occasionally fell short of expectations. Cox in particular failed to make his character’s professedly ardent feelings for and subsequent seduction of Emma believable. Intermittently choppy pacing and bumbled deliveries ensued throughout. The actors’ awkwardness — so strong at the start of the play — dissipated slowly, but never fully transformed into passion. A strong sense excitement or desire that might explain the adultery — the play’s titular betrayal — also never emerged. Still, scenes of wry humor between Cox and Dold and tender moments between Egolf and both men redeemed the production somewhat. 

Though it is not wholly satisfying, Aitken’s production does a reasonably good job addressing the major questions posed by Pinter’s complex work. There is hope, too, that the actors’ performances will improve over time. “Betrayal” will play though Dec. 9 at Boston University’s Huntington Theatre. The production is worth the trip, particularly for those already familiar with the play.

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