A Game of Squash Isn’t Simply a Game of Squash

The stage design is minimal to the extreme. More often than not, the actors speak facing outward rather than one another. When they do face each other, they stand on opposite sides of the stage, perhaps twenty feet apart. When only two are in a scene, the third remains hovering around the corners of the stage, haunting the action. The overhead lighting resembles sterile, hospital room fluorescents.

On paper, so far, so good. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, about the seven-year affair between Jerry (Charlie Cox) and Emma (Zawe Ashton), who is married to Jerry’s best friend, Robert (Tom Hiddleston), is a profoundly lonely play, and director Jamie Lloyd wants to accent that loneliness at every turn. In practice, however, it doesn’t work. For example, toward the end of their affair, Emma complains that despite the Venetian tablecloth, the home-cooked stew, and the other trappings of domestic bliss, their place is a flat “for fucking,” not a home. “You have a home,” Jerry tells her, “I have a home. With curtains, etcetera.” But without the visual relief of this pathetic assemblage of items, the moment loses its emotional resonance. The room is bare, so how could Emma confuse it for anything but what it is, a flat for fucking?

More generally, the blocking is just plain awkward. Betrayal demands verisimilitude, reaction more than action, and without it, the language falls flat, into the space between bodies. Important aspects of these relationships, in particular Robert and Jerry’s mutual love, goes unexplored. Additional decisions, like the addition of an onstage child, clutter the simplicity, and indeed the meaning, of Pinter’s bare-boned drama.

There is also the issue of tone. Take, for instance, an example from early in the play, which moves in reverse chronological order. Jerry calls Robert a “bastard” for withholding his knowledge of the affair. At the performance I attended, this was greeted with belly laughs. What right does an adulterer have to such indignation? And yet, the genius of Betrayal lies in the fact that the title refers to far more than marital infidelity. Jerry has just as much of a right to his wounds as any other character in the play.

As written, Betrayal exists in a tight space between laughter and terror, and the humor always stands in the shadow of potential violence. In the current revival, that menace evaporates. This is most obvious with respect to Robert. Tom Hiddleston hits a few of the right notes, but for the most part his interpretation is far too generous. Robert is a bastard, one who lies to everyone he loves and who admits to “giving her a good bashing … once or twice.” As played by Hiddleston, the line is dripping with guilt, but the text warrants no such reading. Later, when Emma admits that she and Jerry are lovers, we are meant to recall this casual reference to “bashing” and wonder if another is coming. Here, however, such thoughts of domestic violence have been perished, brushed under the rug, inconsistent as they are with Lloyd’s sympathetic understanding of Robert. The result is a Betrayal robbed of all its emotional and dramatic power.

Betrayal runs through December 8th at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.  242 W. 45th Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 30 minutes. No intermission.

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