The new Pinter play, "Betrayal," which opened Saturday night at the Trafalgar, has a happy beginning for its ending. But don't let that mystify you: This is a love affair examined in reverse, an illicit one in which we first meet the couple, friendly strangers now, two years after their parting. It is exquisitely told and beautifully done and, for a change in Pinter, the only enigma is the heart's great and insoluble one.
It is a play, in nine concise scenes (with intermission), consisting almost wholly of small talk, a play whose weight and meaning lie just behind the idle remarks and pulsate in the pauses. It is about love and affection and the evanescence of human relationships. It is also quite funny, with rue and laughter so closely intertwined that such a line as "Have you read any good books lately?" seems freshly coined.
There are just three characters, not counting a silent bartender in the opening scene and a comic Italian waiter in a later one. Jerry, a London writer's agent, has had a seven-year affair with Emma, wife of Robert, a London publisher and Jerry's best friend. Jerry and Emma met, or meet (for remember, we trace the affair backwards, with one or two forward leaps) on convenient afternoons in a small flat Jerry has rented. Their betrayal - Jerry is married, too, and both couples have children - leads to little lies. In the first scene, set in 1977, Emma tells Jerry she's been up all night wrangling with her husband, and during the course of it has revealed her indiscretion, whereas actually she had told Robert about it four years earlier during a holiday in Venice. Little lies become a habit. Robert, incidentally, has been cheating on Emma right along, and Emma, who runs an art gallery and is therefore able to sneak away afternoons, has taken up with Casey, the men's best selling author, since breaking up with Jerry.
As the years peel away, we see the lovers' gaiety and ardor grow stronger. In the final scene, taking place in 1968 in Emma's bedroom, where she has gone to freshen up while a party is going on downstairs, a slightly tipsy and bedazzled Jerry has cornered her. He pours out his feelings in the play's only sustained, lyrical outburst, and the piece ends (or begins) with a clutched arm as Emma is about to go out the door and rejoin her guests. Instead, held there for the moment, she must turn her head and, as their eyes meet, the betrayal begins.
Pinter's craftsmanship has never been so delicate and sure. While "Betrayal" may strike some as a slight work for him, it has the deceptive strength of a spider's web.
It is marvelously well acted. Raul Julia, his bespectacled Jerry looking almost the wimp in his neat, conservative dress and closely trimmed hair; Roy Scheider as the brisk publisher Robert, whose nervousness never gives way to ungentlemanliness toward wife and friend, except in one or two sudden and brief eruptions; and Blythe Danner as the coolly lovely Emma. The three are superb.
More and more, I come to find Peter Hall, who has staged most of Pinter's plays as well as many other fine things, practically matchless in his field, and his mastery has never been more evident than it is in "Betrayal." John Bury, who has also had a long association with Pinter, has designed a series of small, shallow sets in sharp perspective that are slid in from one side or the other and that perfectly express the surface artificiality of the play. Too, in the white light he has cast on most of them, they have a bleached-out look, like the lives portrayed within them.
"Betrayal" is a play of stray images, of three decent and likable people who find themselves, as if by the merest chance, turned a bit hollow. Its echoes will follow you all the way home.
It was the film-maker Michelangelo Antonioni, who when asked whether a film should have "a beginning, a middle and an end," reportedly replied: "Definitely." Then, after a pause, added: "But not necessarily in that order."
This is a precept that Harold Pinter seems to have taken to heart in his latest play Betrayal, which officially opened at the Trafalgar Theater on Saturday night. For Pinter starts his play at the end and then, like Hamlet's crab, walks backward. The play is told in one continuing flashback, although certain scenes may, for dramatic convenience, be more or less contemporaneous.
Our first sight of Jerry and Emma is in a seedy London pub. They seem jovial but ill at ease. Soon we discover they were once lovers, but the affair has been dead for some two years. Apparently Emma and her husband, Robert, have decided to split up. Emma has told her husband about their earlier affair.
From now on the play charts the course of the affair - practically takes its temperature at crucial times - from its end to its beginning. The second scene does move a day forward, but the shift of the play is back - right back until the end when we are faced with a drunken Jerry making a definitive pass at his best friend's wife.
By this time, of course, we know all about it. The pattern of the play is ingenious because it enables us in the audience to know the future of the characters we see on the stage. Unfortunately the characters, and their marital problems, are not especially interesting.
Pinter has dedicated his play to Simon Gray, author of such plays as Butley and Otherwise Engaged, which, of course, Pinter directed in London and New York. Despite the rarefied dialogue and understated passions, the play has more than a touch of Gray to it, yet without Gray's acrid wit. Ironically enough, Gray's latest play Close of Play, seen in London, is rather like a muted Pinter.
Much of the London literary world has become a goldfish bowl where the goldfish observe one another intensely. This play would seem to commemorate this.
Jerry is a literary agent, while his Oxbridge chum Robert is a publisher. By the end of the story - or the beginning of the play - Emma has started an art gallery. They all live off art, but not precisely for art. They are middle-men, entrepreneurs.
They are recognizably middle-class London professionals, living in places like Hampstead or Chelsea, eating expense-account lunches, indulging in trips to Venice and the Lake District, and enjoying the occasional drink and the discreet adultery.
They love children and envy the traditions of a class they were never quite born into. The men often play squash, and the women have been known to lunch at Fortnum and Mason's. They are subtly inarticulate, almost to the point of code.
Pinter has drawn them well - but were they worth drawing? For a contemporary tme-capsule perhaps. Certainly it is Pinter's most immediate play, but perhaps also his most shallow. It is not at all helped by the present staging.
When Peter Hall directed the play for Britain's National Theater last year he had a perfect cast in Penelope Wilton, Michael Gambon and Daniel Massey. They knew every nuance of the territory, and should have been brought over with the play.
The American cast is considerably more starry - Blythe Danner, Raul Julia and Roy Scheider - and as actors they are certainly not one whit inferior. Yet Peter Hall has forced them into imitations of the London cast - performances which they have probably never seen.
There is a vague attempt at some mid-Atlantic accent, and the actors are crammed into characterizations completely alien to themselves. With more freedom they might at least have been able to breathe.
Miss Danner comes off best - indeed she fits into the play with a wry and distraught prettiness that is perfectly right. Julia looks and sounds shipwrecked, his glints of charm scarcely lighting up his air of bewilderment. Scheider (welcome back! it's been a long 12 years) offers a brilliant, if unconscious, parody of Daniel Massey, and does enough to show what we have lost through his stage absence.
Now a note for Pinter observers. The printed text marks 134 Pauses, of which 77 come in the first three scenes. There are also 16 Silences - which, of course, are pauses rather more than pregnant. In the final scene (the story's opening) there is neither a Pause nor a Silence.
If you start with the ending, what is there left to say? Everything. "Betrayal," Harold Pinter's new play at the Trafalgar, is as mesmerizing as a cobra is reputed to be, and for very good reason. Mr. Pinter has elected to tell his story backwards, and backwards - this time, anyway - turns out to be exactly what is required.
The story seems simple enough at first encounter. In the beginning, an affair ends. The three principals - husband, wife, lover - are buckled up in trench coats when we first meet them, self-protectively sealed off against further yearning, further anger, further hurt. The few words they have left to spend on one another are as impersonal as rolled dice. "I don't think we don't love each other" is the most that lover Raul Julia, tilting his head appraisingly, can offer mistress Blythe Danner by way of farewell. "Ah, well" is the reluctant sigh, and the signoff, that Miss Danner permits herself. You can poke around in ashes but you can't find much there.
Then, after two brief scenes, Mr. Pinter is suddenly doubling back in time as though the sleepy clock we've seen on a pub wall had wildly begun reversing itself. Past is present now, and so is passion. As we leapfrog our way to the moments that counted most during a seven-year dalliance, we find Mr. Julia doing his cagey best to enjoy, or survive, a restaurant lunch with the cuckolded Roy Scheider - who also happens to be his best friend.
With time upended, we find Miss Danner propped up in bed in Venice, pretending to read a modern novel (probably about adultery) while fending off the devious but damning questions her husband is flinging at her. And, at evening's end, we are in on the outset, that impulsive moment in a half-darkened room when Mr. Julia exuberantly, perhaps a little drunkenly, seizes Miss Danner in his arms and beats down her quite shaky defenses. We end with the heat at its most intense.
Playwrights have, of course, used the back-to-front format before, usually without success. Mr. Pinter's curiously prismatic play - alternately casting shadows and startling illumination across the walls of John Bury's spare, angular, genuinely beautiful setting - succeeds where others have failed because the device isn't a mere trick here. It's more nearly a revelation. The playwright has realized, intuitively, that telling his particular story backwards is the best possible way to make it move forward. It moves forward to where the emotion is. Out of the ashes, it heads for hate, sometime happiness, fiercely controlled resentment. Call it a hothouse flower opening wide as we watch.
And watch for the tantalizing curves. The play has needed the three superb performers it's been given because it does almost nothing directly. Mr. Scheider, for instance, knows what is going on but is unwilling to force a showdown with wife or friend. Now rigid with rage, now trembling with indignation, he is content to bait, taunt, torment - but only by intimation. The sequence in Venice is a small masterpiece of hidden challenge.
Mr. Scheider has been to the post office and been offered a letter addressed to his wife. He's refused it. Did she pick it up? Yes. Why did he refuse it? Well, he might, after all, not have been her husband, he might have been a total stranger (which, increasingly, he is). His fury, throughout the passage, is apparently directed at the careless permissiveness of the Italian postal authorities. The knife, however, is going into Miss Danner. As the scene plays itself out, its complexities go deeper. So does the knife. The unspoken duel between the two players is as transfixing as it is evasive.
The meeting in the restaurant invites both Mr. Julia and Mr. Scheider to display the same sort of cunning, formally preserving their friendship at agonizing cost to their nerve ends. Mr. Julia's tensions are taken out on an overly solicitous waiter who doesn't want to serve melon without prosciutto. Mr. Scheider's are taken out on himself.
Pretending to regard himself as an ineffectual publisher because he's turned down a best seller his agent-friend has offered him, he falls into a paroxism of loathing - a loathing for all literature, except the pleasure of reading Yeats in solitude on Torcelloo. His actual spite, of course, is aimed at the two people who are playing cat-and-mouse with him, as his love of solitude is really the only love he has left.
The principals are infinitely adroit at playing what some actors would call the subtext, the intolerable canker beneath a shark-like smile. Miss Danner, a blond voice with a crack in it, moves subtly, persuasively from the waiflike wistfullness of her final parting with Mr. Julia to a brilliantly playful, swiftly dishonest cover-up when she is first (last) caught in the same man's urgent embrace. Mr. Julia, wearing a carved-in-oak smirk beneath the eyeglasses that render him opaque, makes even his idlest words important by seeming to taste them before surrendering them. As a result, we taste them, too; the performance is wonderfully sly. Mr. Scheider, jaw muscles taut and eyelids blinking rapidly as he overrides each new affront, pursues the Chinese-box puzzles that surround him with a poisonous, unfaltering poise. Perfect.
And director Peter Hall's attention to highly selected detail makes the whole withholding game intensely factual, plausibly lived through: Mr. Julia carefully avoiding an electric heater in the colorless flat set apart for the lovers' assignations; Miss Danner just as carefully wiping away a small splash of vodka spilled onto a cheap bureau-top.
The play makes no use of the poetic openness, the unfamiliar lyricism displayed in the author's last work to be seen here, "No Man's Land." It is very spare, verbally curt, vodka-dry. Some audiences may find its stringent, reserved facade too chilly for comfort. But the play isn't designed for comfort, it's designed for the excitement of the chase, for the fear that truth may elude us if we aren't quick enough to snare it, for the almost surgical satisfaction of seeing life honed to the injured bone. I found it fascinating.