Having seen the stunning new revival of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play “Betrayal,” I wondered how many in the audience may have squirmed with guilt feelings about secret betrayals of their own. The play, when convincingly performed, is lacerating in its witty exploration of duplicity, and even the frequent humor stings with revelations of hypocrisy.
The staging and the acting blend impressively in interpreting Pinter, including emphasis on his much-heralded pauses that add intensity. Jamie Lloyd’s direction provides an icy atmosphere as the plot enfolds backwards in time, starting from the point at which an illicit romance is past history and moving back to the time in which it began.
The set designed by Soutra Gilmour is a vast bare-bones stage, with very few props, suggesting a cold environment that runs counter to the passions that are implied but only rarely physically indicated. Most of the time the three entwined characters are simultaneously on stage, with one hovering in the background as the other two converse front and center.
In addition to the superior production style, it is that acting that ultimately carries the day. Zawe Ashton is a knockout as Emma, the center of attraction. She is tall, lithe and appealing, with great diction and the ability to emphasize most important words and attitudes with body language that serves as exclamation points. Ashton, who is barefoot most of the time, consistently rivets our attention, almost as a force of nature.
Tom Hiddleston superbly plays Robert, her husband, and Charlie Cox is very convincing as Jerry, who has been having an affair with Emma over the years even though he and Robert, both in the world of publishing, have been best friends. As the play reveals, the involvement between Jerry and Emma is not the only infidelity.
How secret has the dalliance been? The revelations come intriguingly to the audience step by step, time period by time period, and Pinter is best when providing the spare dialogue that spans the emotions and histories of the threesome. At its root, the play is really very funny, but the relationships emerge as deadly serious with insights into human behavior of characters who struggle to face truths about their lives while burying conflicting feelings.
A short stretch of comedy is provided by Eddie Arnold as an Italian waiter, a nifty touch that the play can use, given its overall tautness.
There have been many productions of “Betrayal,” including a film version, and the quality has varied from excellent to so-so. However, in my memory, this staging is the most effective and enjoyable, and the one that best brings out the genius in Pinter’s writing and incisive observations. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed September 6, 2019.