It’s Complicated: Thoughts on Betrayal – September 28, 2019

Betrayal is a complex play about relationships written by Harold Pinter, currently playing at the Jacobs Theatre for a limited run through December 8, 2019. I had heard positive reviews about this play and was intrigued by its premise, so I trotted down to the TKTS booth to obtain my ticket. Of course, another draw is its stellar (British) cast – Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton and Tom Hiddleston, the latter making his Broadway debut.

The play revolves around married couple Robert and Emma, and Jerry, Robert’s best friend – Jerry (who is also married) and Emma embark on an affair over the course of seven years without either spouse the wiser (though it turns out not to be the case for one of the spouses). The play unfolds in reverse, which makes the tenuous interactions between the three all the more intriguing, as the audience is aware of certain truths as time rewinds.

The set design is sparse to the point that it’s almost nonexistent aside from some chairs, a table and other relevant props, which works brilliantly as to not to distract the audience of the equally sparse yet highly effective dialogue. Brief exchanges with considerable pauses in between are characteristic of Pinter plays, which ratchets up the tension to the point where a flurry of volatile emotion is expected to explode at any moment. Yet it doesn’t – the anger, resentment and disappointment smolders, and that makes it all the more painful. Before the play began the ushers advised the audience to silence their phones and other electrical devices (as they usually do) and explained that the play was very quiet. And so it was – aside from sprinkling of incidental music and a soulful (mournful?) rendition of the Depeche Mode song “Enjoy the Silence”, its lyrics commentating on the situation between the three. All three actors were phenomenal in their respective roles – all three were onstage for the entirety of the 90-minute play, even when the scene involved two of the three characters, a ghostly specter (and inadvertent spectator) as the topic of conversation involved the absent (but not really) character.

The stage door scene was relatively sparse, which was surprising given the caliber (and overall fame) of actors on stage; while I did attend a matinee, there are more times than not a crowd of audience members wanting to meet the actors. Perhaps one note of confusion was the fact some theatregoers (a handful I had come across at least) did not know the location of the stage door. The stage door for the Jacobs Theatre was not (as for most theaters) next door to the entrance; it shares its stage door with two other theatres – the Golden, which is next door to the Jacobs and the Majestic, which is on the other side of the block on W 44th Street. As this was my first (of perhaps many) trips to see Betrayal, I was not aware of whether or not the cast would emerge to sign playbills; though I was fortunate to meet Charlie Cox at the stage door, as Zawe Ashton and Tom Hiddleston were not able to stop to greet the few people waiting (for reasons unknown).

While it’s a short play with brevity as its benchmark, Betrayal has a lot to say in the silences between the words spoken aloud – that the events unfold (for the most part) in reverse makes the audience pay attention to every word said and every gesture taken (as well as the things not said or done). It’s one of those plays that one would need to see several times before truly understanding the entire picture.