The fledgling Alternative Repertory Theatre has avoided passive, easy drama once again. Following its faithful handling of Jean-Paul Sartre's dense and difficult "No Exit" (its inaugural offering), the tiny Santa Ana troupe is presenting Harold Pinter's nearly as dense, perhaps even more difficult "Betrayal."
Like "No Exit," this production is generally first-rate. The acting is almost always fine, and the small, necessary touches--David C. Palmer's sensitive spotlighting and Gary Christensen's gentle music to emphasize a moment; Christa Bartel's minimalist, utilitarian set--are all in place.
There is trouble, however, and it is Pinter's fault. A convoluted examination of infidelity, with gimmicky reverse narration and skimpy plotting, "Betrayal" is not one of his better plays. Where "No Exit" is a classic of existential theater, "Betrayal" is minor, an experiment that occasionally moves in the right direction but ultimately loses it.
Pinter tries to jimmy our perceptions of the ways dramatic events develop by taking the usual linear approach and turning it upside down. The first scene introduces Emma (Cindy Hanks) and Jerry (Lawrence Levy) years after their affair has ended; Emma tells Jerry that her husband Robert (John Turnbull), who is also Jerry's best friend, now knows everything. Then--like film of an exploding bomb run backwards and in slow motion--we are shown the telltale moments in the relationship, ending with Jerry's first drunken advances.
Although there are some involving scenes in "Betrayal" (Pinter's characteristically pungent, naturalistic dialogue often generates a charge among the threesome), the play does not develop its premise sufficiently. Several motivational keys are abbreviated, or omitted by Pinter altogether: Why, for example, does Emma agree to the affair? Robert is a self-satisfied prig, but is that enough of a reason? And if so, why does she stay with him? And why would Jerry so cavalierly betray his closest friend? Pinter is obviously making some sort of statement about the casual tenuousness of relationships, but it is a shadow point missing sharp lines.
As much as anything, though, "Betrayal" is sabotaged by the narrative technique. Anyone not familiar with the drama, or the 1983 movie based on it, may find himself in murky depths. The program notes clearly detail the chronology of scenes, but if you miss those, you may be confused the entire time. Even a genuine effort in the production to establish differences in emotional tone can't overcome the structural limitations.
Pinter's approach also makes some unusual demands of the cast. Fortunately, director Robert Sternberg has picked actors who know what to do and, despite the time-flipping, are able to convey personality changes that result from the affair.
Hanks and Levy are especially good, moving from the awkward, embarrassed meeting that begins the play, backwards through their trysts to the first self-conscious flirtations. The two have a steady, eloquent chemistry.
Turnbull might have given Robert more dimension--maybe a bit of melancholy to soften the edges and to help explain why Emma was drawn to him in the first place--but his portrayal of a smug man, whose compliments even sound like indictments, is often penetrating.
These performances, along with the production's other technical qualities, prevent ART's "Betrayal" from being dismissable. Despite the dangers of grappling with a work that is unavoidably flawed, this company has managed to retain its integrity.
'BETRAYAL' An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of Harold Pinter's drama. Directed by Robert Sternberg. With Cindy Hanks, Lawrence Levy, John Turnbull and Philip Seitz. Set by Christa Bartels. Lighting by David C. Palmer. Sound by Gary Christensen. Costumes by Karen J. Weller. Plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. through March 20 at 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Tickets: $10 and $8. (714) 836-7929.