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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Betrayal," A Harold Pinter Story
A Roundabout Theater Company Production
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street
Opened: November 14, 2000
Reviewed November 15,2000 by Margaret Croyden
(212) 239-6200
BETRAYAL -- Juliette Binoche, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber. Photo: Joan Marcus
One of the joys of theater is seeing a virtually flawless production, where the play, the acting, the direction and even the scenery have all meshed to present an unforgettable experience. Although this seldom happens on Broadway these days, I am glad to announce that we now have that perfect combination. "Betrayal" by Harold Pinter, presented by the Roundabout theater with a cast of only three have unquestionably brought this Pinter play of the 1970's to life. Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Juliette Binoche are carefully matched in this tale of betrayal, deceit, and unresolved passion, and David Leveaux has beautifully directed the ambiguity and ambivalence that defines a Pinter play. Even Rob Howell's pristine gray and white set adds a certain neutrality to the quality of the characters' behavior.

The story is a familiar one, not uncharacteristic of Pinter. The leading characters are two married men, great friends and colleagues who have known each other for years. One falls in love with the other man's wife; and a clandestine, torrid affair begins, supposedly unbeknownst to the cuckold husband. A slim plot to be sure, but Pinter has devised a cunning structure. The opening scene is a meeting of the two lovers after their affair is over, while the rest of the play is a depiction of their liaison going backward in time. In other words, the end is the beginning, but this hardly diminishes the audience's tension and mesmerizing effect that distinguishes a Pinter play.

The famous Pinter technique--heavy pauses, many ellipses, double speak, misunderstandings, comical play on words, and a vibrant sub-text--that the actors project so cleverly, enriches the story which, in lesser hands, would be commonplace. However, Pinter's bare plot is never the real core of the work. It is precisely the pauses, the silences, the bizarre wording of the lines, the repetitions, that convey the character's motivations and behavior--their inner psychological life. The use of ambiguity, so common in a Pinter play, denies the certainty of the characters' actions so what is really happening, or what has really happened remains uncertain. And this of course adds to the audience's fascination. Pinter's plays are puzzles to be deciphered, discussed and analyzed. Or to be discarded as a clever manipulation of language and brilliant affectation of style, but a Pinter play is never to be ignored.

Very few actors can play Pinter, very few American actors, that is. The Pinter dialogue is written like music; an actor must learn the precise rhythm, the British upper class delivery, the meaning of the end lines, the perfect timing of every pause, the exact emphasis on the right word. And this is no easy job. Glad to report that the three actors who are not British (the two men are American, Ms. Binoche is Canadian) have succeeded not only in conjuring up excellent British accents, but in perfecting the Pinter rhythms. Especially successful is Liev Schreiber, a gifted actor, whose timing and delivery, even his stance--are very right. He also has the sex appeal and good looks to convince the audience that he is ruled by an uncontrollable but totally attractive and compelling passion that any woman would find irresistable.

Clearly, Mr. Schreiber is blessed with an aminal dynamic on stage, and though he has always done good work in other productions, he has reached a new high with this performance. John Slattery as the betrayed husband is a perfect foil. A kind of bumbling Englishmen, with a droll sense of humor and an apparent indifference to everything except squash, Mr. Slatterly is both touching and comical as the husband who knows, but doesn't want to know. He is a man betrayed who, trying to avoid the truth about his marriage, resorts to all kinds of word play, double talk, and witticisms, and speaks about everything except his feelings. Juliette Binoche as the much desired woman is wonderful to look at and well matched with Liev Schreiber's sexiness. Between the two of them, they deliver the most erotic scenes in the play, so that their affair is understandable, and because of its passion, almost enviable.

Of the three roles the woman's role is the most ambiguous, however. One does not get any hint of why her marriage is a failure, why she falls in love (if she really does) with her husband's closest friend who, incidentally, was the best man at their wedding. Somehow the motivations of the men are clearer, while the woman, at times, is almost unsympathetic. Not only does she betray her husband but as it turns out later, she also betrays her lover. Though Pinter's characters are always enigmatic--he loves mysteries--she is a too much of a puzzle. But for Pinter, people are puzzling, and have always been so.

Pinter is at his most brilliant when depicting not only peoples' irrationality, and their baffling behavior, but their disasterous relationships, and the imminent, unexpected dangers and challenges that ultimately lead to broken lives. Whether one agrees with Pinter's concept of emotional disorder and its underlying despair between the sexes, is beside the point. The important thing is that "Betrayal" is an intriguing, beautifully produced work--a rare treat in the theater--and should not be missed. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is a memoir, "In the Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys," and writes frequently about the arts.

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