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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
The concept of such invisible effort—of how demanding it is to have every part of you engaged just to maintain the appearance of a resting state—kept coming back to me during the minimalist new production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, directed by Jamie Lloyd and starring Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, and Charlie Cox (all established actors making their Broadway debuts). And why wouldn't it? Pinter's play, a semi-autobiographical tale of an affair told in reverse across a decade, is deeply focused on the work of maintaining illusions of normalcy in one's own life.
But this idea is also relevant to appreciating Lloyd's compelling, stripped-down staging, imported from London's Pinter at the Pinter project last year. In lieu of showy sets, explosive confrontations, or busy staging, Lloyd opts for a less-is-more approach—in some ways contrasting with Betrayal's last star-studded Broadway revival, featuring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz—that draws as much meaning as possible from silences, subtle glances, and words that say little but mean much more.
This understated staging makes it possible to overlook how much work the principal cast members really are doing, though this is hardly a risk when their characters are actually featured in a scene. As Robert, Hiddleston is an outright charm offensive. His comic timing and breezy snark transfigures discomfort into laughter with precision, yet he can jump from flippancy to cutting sincerity with disarming ease.
Ashton beguiles as Emma, giving the character a guarded, enigmatic aura without compromising her agency or personality. If the play's construction creates a risk of Emma being reduced to a pawn in a game of sexual chess between two men, Ashton's nuanced performance fiercely resists such a characterization.
Although Emma is at the center of the play's relationship Venn diagram, it is Cox's Jerry who feels like the mediating force between the energies of the other two. Cox plays Jerry with such amiable likability that you nearly forget the weight of his role in the titular betrayal. His interactions with Emma and Robert are both marked with a tender sincerity, albeit in very different forms. In Emma's dealings with Robert, by contrast, Ashton and Hiddleston have a chemistry that crackles with tension and the weight of things unsaid.
The time the performers spend in the spotlight is only half the story, however. In this production they are themselves constantly engaged, never leaving the stage for the duration of the ninety-minute play. If their character is not in a scene, they fade to the back or side, entering a state that is not quite neutral but almost trance-like. Their faces show distance as well as the subtle impact of the exchange that they are not literally present for but that the staging has inserted them into, sometimes quite directly.
This attention to nearly imperceptible physicality is one example of the filmic approach that Lloyd takes to the play. This aesthetic manifests itself physically through a stage that seems to be letterboxed in, with a long, sparse backdrop painting accentuating the "widescreen" feel (scenic design is by Soutra Gilmour), and projections of a title card and transition sequences (the lighting is designed by Jon Clark).
Sound also plays an important role. The cinematic soundtrack uses music from artists like Trent Reznor to create a suspenseful atmosphere between scenes (Ben and Max Ringham did the sound design and composition). The action itself is kept exceptionally quiet, allowing even the smallest noises—a clink of glasses, a slap on the back, the jingle of keys (as well as, be warned, any noise from the audience)—to reverberate through the house.
One has to wonder if a production so focused on small, minute physical touches, mirroring Pinter's own economical writing, might be better suited to a smaller theater than a Broadway house. Certainly it seems feasible that seeing this production in a black box with greater immediacy could more explosively convey the play's drama.
But with that outcome clearly unfathomable for such a high-profile revival, it's remarkable how the staging here helps make the Jacobs theater as small as possible. Anyone who was recently here to see the cavernous household of The Ferryman will barely recognize the stage in its current form, the antithesis of its predecessor in nearly every way.
And even though the house is big, Ashton, Cox, and Hiddleston perform at scale, successfully conveying the subtly charged nature of the play. In Pinter's work, what is not spoken can be as important as what is. Lloyd's production is likewise interested in such negative space, resulting in a Betrayal that rewards looking closely. The efforts of the cast, however subtle they may be at times, are constant, rigorous, and, ultimately, brimming with potency.
For more on Harold Pinter, including reviews of past productions of Betrayal, see CurtainUp's Pinter section of our Playwrights Album.
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by Harold Pinter
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
with Eddie Arnold (Waiter), Zawe Ashton (Emma), Charlie Cox (Jerry), and Tom Hiddleston (Robert). At the August 31 performance, Emma Lyles appeared as the Daughter.
Scenic and Costume Design: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design: Jon Clark
Sound Design and Composition: Ben and Max Ringham
Production Stage Manager: Frank Lombardi
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
Tickets: $25–$189; (212) 239-6200 or (800) 447-7400, www.telecharge.com, or in person at the theater
From 8/14/2019; opened 9/5/2019; closing 12/8/2019
Performance times: Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 7 pm, Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 8/31/2019 performance
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