Monday, December 23, 2013

Betrayal: Theatre Lite

Rachel Weisz, Daniel Craig and Rafe Spall in Betrayal

Mike Nichols’ Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal has star power and impressive production values. Ian MacNeil’s set reconstructs itself from scene to scene in geometric pieces that, suggestively, don’t quite connect. Ann Roth’s handsome costumes provide subtle commentary on the three characters, two men and one woman who form the points of a love triangle. And Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is magnificent, especially in the transitions in and out of the pivotal scene in Italy, where Robert confronts his wife Emma with evidence that she’s been sleeping with his oldest friend, Jerry; it creates ghosts behind the backdrops to suggest the idea that the third member of the trio is inescapably present, just out of reach, whenever the other two are alone together. The designs make clear, provocative statements, so Nichols must have communicated a strong vision of the play to his collaborators. Yet the production itself doesn’t seem to be about anything except three actors on a stage.

The stars are the husband-and-wife team Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as Robert and Emma; it’s their participation – and particularly that of Craig, the movies’ much adored James Bond – that must have bankrolled the show and that certainly accounts for its sold-out run. And they’re something to watch: Craig’s craggy, sculpted face and haughty, narrowed gaze, his brooding, restless masculine presence like that of a prizefighter battling the demons of his vanished opponents; Weisz’s fragile, diminutive beauty, her fractured pensiveness. I love both these actors and it’s thrilling to watch them live; in the nineteenth-century sense of theatre as a frame for famous figures who outdistance the piddling limitations of real life, they’re giving audiences their money’s worth. And Rafe Spall – recognizable to North American audiences as the writer to whom Irrfan Khan unravels his story in the film Life of Pi – plays Jerry as an amusingly neurotic amalgam of wayward, often contradictory impulses. Watching him lunge drunkenly at Weisz in the final scene, at a party where Jerry first declares himself to Emma, is fun in a Saturday Night Live revue-sketch sort of way. (The beginning of the affair ends the play because the narrative of the play moves backwards, from 1977, when Robert and Emma, split up for two years, meet for a drink, to 1968.)

Riveting as these actors are, however, what they do on stage doesn’t add up to a play. I’m not a Pinter guy, and Betrayal didn’t mean much to me either in the original Broadway production or in the 1983 movie version. But Ian Rickson’s revival in the West End in 2011 got so deep into the characters, who keep colliding like billiard balls, that you emerged with their ricocheting moods in your head like the potent after-images of a dream, especially those of Kristin Scott Thomas’s woe-struck Emma. Nichols’s Betrayal isn’t committed to anything; it’s theatrical free play. The encounters don’t resonate and the characters don’t seem plausible. I never bought for an instant the idea that Weisz’s elegant, poised Emma would sleep with Spall’s clownish Jerry, let alone carry on an affair with him for seven years. I didn’t believe in the offstage children, either Emma and Robert’s or Jerry’s with his (unseen) wife. Jerry is a literary agent and Robert a publisher, but nothing about the two men’s performances convinced me that they actually engaged in those professional activities; “agent” and “publisher” just sounded like titles conveniently appended to the characters to give them something to talk about. The production is utterly light, in the sense of being without substance. This time around all I retained in my head when I walked into the night was the work of three spectacularly talented designers.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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