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A CurtainUp Prequel + Review
By Elyse Sommer
And here's the sequel to my prequel: The Review
When three actors capture all the play's subtleties Betrayal is a play that can entertain and engage as if written today. When one of those three actors, and the director, have the instant celebrity name recognition as is the case for the latest Broadway revival, it becomes the epitome of what Joseph Epstein in his terrific book Snobbery: The American Version calls "with-it-ry." In this case that means the current Betrayal is the must-see show for anyone with pretensions of being a cultural insider.
No chance that the dinner party where the arugula salad served along with discussions about Daniel Craig's performance would leave any New York theater goer claiming "with-it-ry" credentials caught unable to make a few choice comments about Craig's performance. Real "with-it-ry would include comparisons to other stellar actors playing the cuckolded publisher, his wife and the best friend who make up this three-legged stool.
Craig isn't really a theatrical icon but he is a celebrity courtesy of his having taken over the role of James Bond on the silver screen. And celebrities are the new stars in the snob zone, which accounts for the prevalence, and success of plays starring well known film actors. Last year's Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino is another case in point.
Of course, good new shows even without stars can generate a "with-it-ry" buzz by virtue of great professional and word of mouth praises, but it takes this kind of celebrity casting for the marketing experts to pump up box office sales the minute tickets go on sale.
Interestingly, the characters in this play themselves fit into a chapter called "Snob-Jobbery"of Mr. Epstein's snobbery book. After all Betrayal's cheaters are in careers with strong "snob-jobbery" standing. The adulterous Emma's husband Robert is a publisher and Jerry the man she cheats with is a literary agent Jerry. Even the two unseen characters, Jerry's wife, and Emma's post-Jerry lover "snob-jobbery" worthy; she's a doctor, and he's a writer.
At any rate, all this "with-it-ry" has broken box office records at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, grossing over a million dollars during several recent preview weeks. The average ticket price for the week ended Oct. 13 was $150.87 and premium tickets zoomed as high as $400 to $500. Granted that the overall cost of live theater making it inaccessible to the average theater goer, has something to do with those mind boggling figures — but given that straight plays don't tend to do that well, the current "with-it-ry" Daniel Craig bestows on this production definitely has something to do with it. It also moved my press reservations to a few days after the official opening, so this prequel until I can report on whether this is all "with-it-ry hype or whether Craig, his wife Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall are as good, or possibly even better, than previous threesomes I've seen.
Actually, it probably won't matter much to this writer since both a starr-y Broadway production and a regional production with lesser known actors were memorable enough to insure Betrayal's place as one of my favorite Pinter plays. It is after all Pinter's precise use of language which raises this marital drama above the ordinary and makes it such a gift for actors.
The last Broadway production I saw featured a riveting Liev Schreiber, a charmingly Gallic Juliette Binoche and John Slattery when he was still better known as a newsman than one Roger Sterling of TV's Mad Men . The regional production I saw was also exceptionally well acted and in a delightfully intimate space, the parlor of Edith Wharton's former summer home with a tea and cookie intermission (not ideal for this play but part of the venue's charm). Here are links to the Broadway Betrayal with Liev Schreiber and the Betrayal in the Berkshires ; also a well received 2007 revival in Also London . Until I follow up on this with a full review about the current Betrayal, here's a picture of of the two men and the production notes below. And this caveat: Don't even think about being fashionably late. Latecomers will NOT be seated.
And here's the sequel to the prequel: The Review
To get right to the point: Daniel Craig does not disappoint.
No actor, no matter how high on the celebrity ranking meter, can be expected to make a 90-minute play worth seeing to the tune of this production's "with-it-ry" inflated ticket prices. But that said, Craig brings real stage acting chops to the role of the cuckolded Robert. He ably projects the simmering pain, anger and complexity of this man who knows what's going on between his wife and his best friend and colleague long before the scene that brings it out into the open. And, he's indeed as ruggedly good looking live as on screen.
His on and off-stage wife Rachel Weisz (can it really be a dozen years since I first saw the British actress in The Shape of Things ?) not only looks lovely but is a nuanced and poignant Emma. (Bravo to costumer Ann Roth for all three characters).
While Craig is the ticket selling magnet, and both he and Weisz are excellent, the truly unforgettable character here is British actor Rafe Spall as Jerry, the man sharing seven years of illicit afternoons with Emma. Spall is new to Broadway but has already established his ability to play multi-faceted characters abroad. Our London critic found his Olivier award winning performance in last year's Constellation mesmerizing. ( Review ). Spall is equally mesmerizing here. He lets us see a man who's at once conventional and passionate, initially a friendship-be-damned seducer, but ultimately the big loser in this triangle as he displays his pain at losing both the woman he probably loves and doesn't just lust for, but the friend who also means much to him.
As for Mike Nichols' production, it's different, more lavishly staged and, yes, funnier, than any versions of this play that you may have seen before. But somehow Nichols has managed to retain the sense of unspoken menace and violence that's integral to even this most straightforward of Harold Pinter's plays while making us see the comic aspects of this triangular marital drama. That straightforward adjective applies strictly to the easy to understand story line since Betrayal is famous for its reverse structure of an adulterous affair — beginning at the end and except for a couple of scenes, filling in the details in subsequent earlier scenes that conclude with the affair's beginning.
For all the added layers of comedy, Mr. Nichols has remained true to Pinter's plot, characters and structure. The situation, inspired by the playwright's own extra-marital affair, revolves around three upper middle class people whose dialogue about literature and their daily lives is a coverup of the more sound bite (per the samples at the top of this page) is in place. And under Nichols' direction, the starry trio of betrayers expertly tease out both the Pinteresque menace and the humor inherent in their various meetings. Besides his own affair as the dramatic jump starter, the secrets and lies propelling these relationships struck me once again as a metaphor for the playwright's view of a culture in which people cannot connect in a direct, straightforward manner.
The scenes between the men are especially pungent — as pregnant with witty display of tension beneath the surface amiability. A notable case in point: At a restaurant lunch when Robert slyly hints that he may know about the affair, Jerry sublimates his nervousness by voraciously digging into his melon, even picking at the rind to avoid further conversation. Robert's wine fueled rage is palpable.
Mr. Craig has proved that he doesn't need fancy scenery and Bond-ish gadgetry to project an impressive stage presence in his previous Broadway outing, A Steady Rain. No name brand author. And a bare bones single set with two chairs. Nor has Betrayal seemed to need glitzy Broadway production values to resonate. And yet, Ian MacNeil' multiple sets are so striking and slide and glide so smoothly that they're never come off as excessively showy or distracting.
Pinter purists may be put off by having the unspoken subtext too clearly illustrated. However, Nichols has utilized the more detailed and varied settings to add subtle meaning to the relationships (for example; the table cloth Emma brings from an Italian holiday with Robert to the love nest she shares with Jerry).
Being subjected to countless distracting and annoying seating of late arrivals after several other recent Broadway outings, a special shout out to this production's strict adherence to the "No Late Seating" rule.
For more about Harold Pinter see the Harold Pinter section of Our Playwrights'Album The 1983 movie version starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge is something of a collector's item but don't be surprised if Turner Movie Channel takes advantage of the new production's buzz and runs it. You might also want to look for a rerun of the November 20, 1997 Seinfeld take known as The Backwards Episode due to its use of reverse chronology.