By: David Sheward
Trust Mike Nichols to find the laughs in adultery. After all, in collaboration with Elaine May, he created and performed one of the most hilarious sketches on the subject during the legendary comedy duo’s nightclub days. They played three different cheating couples-American, British, and French-exposing the national character of each as they negotiated their way to a hotel room. Now, Nichols, who became the most successful stage and film director of his generation after his standup stints, makes this painful subject painfully funny in a brilliant revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.
A previous Broadway production (the 2000 Roundabout staging, I didn’t see the first American production in 1980) was dark and sinister, full of the predictable Pinteresque pauses. Nichols’s staging is just as evocative of the menace the Nobel Prize-winning playwright found in everyday situations like meeting for lunch or visiting friends, but Nichols also mines the hilarity inherent in these occurrences. It doesn’t hurt that he has three sexy headliners-Daniel Craig, the current James Bond; Craig’s real-life wife, Rachel Weisz; and, best of all, Rafe Spall, making his Broadway debut-as the devious and conflicted sides of Pinter’s romantic triangle.
The play opens with the melancholy meeting between Emma (Weisz) and Jerry (Spall), clandestine lovers whose adulterous affair ended two years earlier. With a few sideways detours, we then move backward in time to the beginning of the liaison. During the journey, we see how Emma, Jerry, and Robert (Craig), Emma’s husband, have betrayed each other in numerous ways, yet they almost never speak directly about this treachery. Seemingly insignificant incidents like Jerry’s tossing of Emma’s little daughter in the air and small props such as a lace tablecloth, take on deeper resonance as we find their original meaning in chronologically earlier, but later played, scenes.
Each of these smart people is articulate about books, art, and society, but, as in many other Pinter works, they mask their feelings behind small talk. Here’s where Nichols cleverly uses comedy to display the difference between the surface calm and the inner turmoil. The characters’ passionate actions belie their dry dialogue. Watch the way Jerry nervously eats a melon as Robert sadistically hints he may know about the affair. The audience uproariously guffaws and then is startled into silence when Robert nearly screams in anguish.
Craig and Weisz sharply play the contrast between their characters’ calculating manipulations and their civilized exteriors. Both these film stars show they have serious stage chops, but the real find here is Spall, a British actor new to the American stage. Though it initially appears his Jerry is the biggest deceiver of all, it turns out he’s the victim of Emma and Robert. Spall feelingly displays all of Jerry’s complex motivations-genuine love as well as lust for Emma, affection for Robert-and the agonizing ache when all is taken away from him and his emotions were spent on a pair even trickier than himself. Add the malicious wit Nichols provides, and this is a perfect Pinter.
Oct. 27-Jan. 5. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes with no intermission. $57-152. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: BrIgitte Lacombe
Originally Published on October 30, 2013 in ArtsinNY.com