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Theater Review

Pinter's 'Betrayal' Dissects Everyday Deceit

Juliette Binoche heads a top cast in this backward glance at an affair.

November 17, 2000|LINDA WINER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — The first time we see Juliette Binoche's Emma, she is sitting at a lone table at the far end of an austere English pub. The floor beneath the scene is turning, slowly carrying the woman around to face the audience at the Roundabout Theatre Company as if she were a precious figurine on a carousel that had once carried joy.

It is an agonizing yet beautiful moment, ineffably sad with echoes of strange hope, and just the start of the deep-tissue emotional needlepoint of Harold Pinter's 1978 "Betrayal." This is the first Broadway revival of Pinter's least elusive major work, and although it feels thinner and meaner than we remember it, it remains a merciless 90-minute, three-sided dissection of adultery that moves backward from the last moment of an affair to the first frisson of furtive contact. In fact, the 1980 Broadway production was so wrongheadedly cast that despite the wonderful 1983 film with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge, this may as well be considered the premiere.

There can be no complaints this time about the production, lusciously cast with Binoche, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery. David Leveaux, the British director who gave Broadway last season's unforgettable revival of "The Real Thing"--not to mention the carnivorous "Electra" with Zoe Wanamaker and the erotic "Anna Christie" with Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson--has staged this power triangle to be lean, clean, extreme yet somehow sensual. Pinter has called Leveaux "a very delicate explorer." There is no betrayal here.

Belief in Pinter is the only place onstage where betrayal is not the subject. The play--Pinter's least oblique--seems less robust compared with Tom Stoppard's more naturalistic and far friendlier infidelity drama, "The Real Thing." Nevertheless, "Betrayal" is a very elegant, tight knot of emotional devastation and the lethal unraveling of everyday deceit. The mysteries are not just who did what to whom, but what did anyone know and when did he or she know it.

But that sounds far too abstract for the harrowing humanity on this stage. The exquisite Binoche, who won her Oscar in 1997 for "The English Patient" and transfixed the West End two seasons ago in Pirandello's "Naked," is Emma, wife of Slattery's Robert, a publisher, and longtime lover of Schreiber's Jerry, a literary agent and Robert's best friend.

What could be a mere melodramatic triangle is transformed by Pinter's time-traveling mechanism. That is, we first see Emma and Jerry in that pub, two years after the end of their affair but apparently the day after Robert confessed his own adulteries and Emma confessed about Jerry. A few of the next eight scenes move slightly forward, but the important ones go back in time until, finally, we are at the moment Jerry first comes on to Emma.

Binoche, in her New York debut, is an eerily transparent actress. As Emma, she is all creamy skin and crisp features and a nervous system that refuses to let anything as easy as beauty disguise the demons. Schreiber, last seen in New York as Hamlet and at the Roundabout in Pinter's "Moonlight," has some of the playwright's own blocky, hard-to-read looks and an almost feline masculinity. Schreiber can make a deep inhale seem like a speech. Slattery matches them, knot for knot, as the husband, a man we assume the wronged party until the deceptions pile up.

Although this is Pinter without the long pauses of his earliest work, Leveaux clearly honors the importance of stillness and watchfulness. "Betrayal" has far fewer of the playwright's ostensible ambiguities and plot assumptions, but there remains the crucial uncertainty of memory--that is, the people we believe we know and actions we are sure we remember can make strangers of us all.

Rob Howell's sets and costumes are an inextricable part of the backward dance. Emma's clothes go from colorless grays back to the bright red of more innocent, open days. The set, a tall beige room with long shuttered windows, becomes increasingly less reticent and more free with the confidence of furniture and colors. Kate Wilson, the dialect coach, deserves special mention for making the American men sound so unerringly English.

Pinter has always known that "life is more mysterious than plays make it out to be." Even in the ordinary ugliness of betrayal, the suspense can be a thrill.

*

* "Betrayal" Roundabout Theatre Company, 227 W. 42nd St., New York, N.Y., (212) 719-1300.

Linda Winer is the chief theater critic at Newsday.

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