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THEATER REVIEW

This `Betrayal' treats Pinter too politely

October 04, 2006|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Nearly 30 years after its premiere, Harold Pinter's "Betrayal" defies time in just about every sense. This wickedly funny yet mercilessly clinical dissection of marital infidelity is presented in reverse, starting with a rueful postmortem two years after the end of an affair and tracing backward to its origin nine years earlier.

Although Pinter won last year's Nobel Prize in literature for a body of work built largely on ambiguity, menace and dread (the pregnant "Pinteresque pause" has become a staple of the theatrical lexicon), "Betrayal" ranks as one of his most accessible plays. Reverse chronology notwithstanding, there is no cryptic uncertainty about the events it relates, and its characters are mired in conventional family obligations rather than edgy extremes of human behavior.

With a seamless present-day resetting, Santa Barbara-based Ensemble Theatre Company confirms the play's enduring relevance. Director Robert Grande-Weiss and his technically proficient cast nail the absurdist wit in Pinter's dialogue with crisp, authentic upper-middle-class British accents and impeccable comic timing.

Nevertheless, beneath its civilized veneer the text is teeming with Pinter's signature sharp edges and primal conflict -- aspects that seem for the most part to have eluded this engaging and polished but frustratingly incomplete revival.

Too often, the staging takes at face value the deceptively mundane triangle of betrayal involving book publisher Robert (Hayden Adams); his wife, Emma (Ann Noble); and his best friend, Jerry (Geoffrey Lower), a literary agent who's also married. Although Adams' Robert is the most complex portrayal, he never veers into truly dangerous territory (an offhand remark that he hit his wife has little impact because it lacks any context in the Robert we see).

An early misstep is the almost breezy, bantering tone of the opening scene, a reunion in which Emma informs Jerry that her marriage is ending and that she's told Robert about their affair. A distraught Jerry invites Robert to his house for an apology, only to learn that Robert had known the truth for years. The affability of Lower's Jerry, and the friends' amusing repartee over who knew what when, effectively enlist the viewer's sympathy and interest at the outset -- but at a price. The fact that Jerry is troubled not by his own behavior but only by its discovery is easy to miss. So too is the wrenching pain in the next scene's depiction of the lovers' breakup two years before -- it plays more like exhaustion.

Pinter's stance toward his characters is not one of moralistic condemnation. Nevertheless, the intent is to reveal the tragic consequences of their actions by peeling away the layers of scar tissue wrought by multiple deceits. The lies pile up until they strangle any love that once existed between these people. Noble suggests this most clearly through Emma's reverse physical transformation from the uptight, joyless shell in the first scene to her lively, passionate younger self. Jerry, however, seems much the same at the end of his arc as he did at the outset -- likable, irresponsible and only mildly perplexed.

Unless we feel their devastation at the outset, telling their story backward becomes nothing more than a gimmick. This overly polite staging needs to take a cue from the play's most oft-repeated phrase -- it needs to be more brutally honest.

*

'Betrayal'

Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 22

Price: $25 to $37

Contact: (805) 962-8606 or www.ensembletheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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