It seems as if every few years there is a new Broadway production of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” featuring stars of film and television. It is unsurprising this play would be appealing — the smart dialogue and intense subtext are a treat for any actor, and the structure provides both ample stage time for all three performers. With the economical yet incendiary dialogue, and little action throughout the play’s 90-minute runtime, the onus for keeping the play interesting lies predominantly on the actors.
“Betrayal” tells the story of a married couple, Robert and Emma, and her affair with his best friend, Jerry. The play goes in reverse chronology, highlighting the turning points in the relationships between the three interconnected friends and lovers over the course of nine years.
Tom Hiddleston (“The Avengers”) plays Robert, with Zawe Ashton (“Velvet Buzzsaw”) as his wife and Charlie Cox (“Daredevil”) as his best friend. Hiddleston, Ashton, and Cox are supremely talented actors, and inhabit their roles with believability, sympathy, and the requisite complexity. None of the characters are either monsters or saints, and their dynamics are remarkably complicated.
Hiddleston was especially fantastic. He has a magnetic stage presence, capturing the audience’s attention effortlessly, and holding us enthralled. He brought the same morally ambiguous charisma that he perfected in Marvel movies, but without Loki’s sly, devilish humor. While Robert has many incredibly humorous lines, he is very different than the antihero God of Mischief.
Hiddleston and Cox had the easy, genuine rapport of childhood friends who remained close through adulthood. Their scenes together were imbued with a deeply felt familiarity that showed the audience exactly why these two loved each other, despite Emma and Jerry’s betrayal.
Likewise, Cox and Ashton had an electric chemistry that crackled through their scenes. The final scene of the play, which sees the inception of Jerry and Emma’s affair, feels like an inevitability due to some pull between the actors. Ashton and Hiddleston’s chemistry felt rather lacking, although this was not to the detriment of the production. In fact, the comparative coldness between the spouses enhanced the story, showing the divide between the two, and their mutual closeness to Jerry.
This production is a direct transfer from a successful West End run. Director Jamie Lloyd chose this play to culminate a six-month engagement at the Harold Pinter Theatre, where he staged each of the writers’ one-act plays for the 10-year anniversary of the playwright’s death. Lloyd opted for an incredibly sparse set design and simple staging, keeping the focus on the trio of leads. The fascinating script and talented actors keep the play interesting, but there is very little to look at, which can get dull.
Minimalist set design, when used well, keeps the focus on the performances. But Lloyd’s staging is remarkably monotonous. In more than half of the scenes, the characters sit in chairs the entire time. “Betrayal” is not an action-heavy play, nor should it be, but the hyper-simplistic staging is incredibly dull to the eye.
The actors appeared to be straining in the confines of their immobility, desiring movement, change, some physical expression to maintain a scene’s momentum or heighten the subtext. Theater is a visual medium as well as auditory, and this aspect of the experience was all but wasted.
A handful of choices in the staging were rather interesting, however. All three actors stayed on stage for nearly the entire play, even when not in a particular scene. This made the presence of each character more deeply felt through the interactions of the other two, highlighting their interconnectedness and the betrayals present in each scene.
Further, each character drank excessively throughout many scenes. Rather than remove the glasses and bottles from sight after they were done, many found their way to the edges of the scene, an omnipresent reminder that, despite their discussions of travel, literature, and higher ideals, the trio are at whims of far baser instincts: lust, love, and intoxication inform many of their decisions.
It is frustrating to see such a clever script and brilliant performances left to their own devices, with little else to enhance the experience. The production is blessed for its three leads, to keep the play from becoming incredibly tedious over its hour-and-a-half runtime. The show is decidedly worth checking out for the cast alone, even if they deserve far better direction.