It might be all too easy to write it off as nothing more than a variation on the theme of infidelity among Great Britain’s posh literary set. But not so fast. Watching Raven Theatre’s expertly realized revival of the 1978 “Betrayal” — Harold Pinter’s brief, biting, time-reversed drama about two marriages and the seven-year-long affair that intersects them — you begin to sense there is something a good deal more profound at work.
It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote that “all stories of monogamy end in death.” In “Betrayal,” Pinter does not necessarily negate that idea. But he suggests something else, too, and it might be phrased this way: All stories of betrayal end in the death (or at least the devaluation) of love. And this raises the question: Is the temporary excitement of betrayal worth the ultimate price that is invariably exacted by it?
Structured in nine brief, airtight scenes that consume barely 80 minutes, the play begins in the spring of 1977 and works its way backward to a party during the winter of 1968. That is when Jerry (Sam Guinan-Nyhart), a literary agent, initiates what will be an initially passionate affair with Emma (Abigail Boucher), the beautiful woman married to Robert (Keith Neagle), a publisher who just happens to be Jerry’s good friend and professional colleague, and who served as the best man at the couple’s wedding.
‘BETRAYAL’ Highly recommended When: Through Dec. 17 Where: Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark Tickets: $43 – $46 Info: (773) 338- 2177; www.raventheatre.com Run time: 80 minutes with no intermission
The affair, which Jerry and Emma would like to believe is totally clandestine, is carried on in a rented flat where the two meet during the afternoon. Jerry is married to a doctor who he believes is monogamous, and happy with her demanding job and two children. Robert and Emma also have two children, although the paternity of their youngest child is briefly put in doubt.
By the time Jerry and Emma meet in a pub in 1977 their affair has been over for two years, and Emma has moved on to another liaison — this time with Casey, an author with whom both Jerry and Robert are connected. Emma, who still is attracted to Jerry, reveals certain things to him that he might not have suspected. When the two men meet for lunch later that day, there are more revelations, with all the “gentlemanly” jousts of jealousy, competition, pain and rage (and, yes, a betrayal of male “friendship”) in full play, and suggestive of Strindberg’s “The Stronger,” a much earlier play about two women.
(Later, in a modern riff on Higgins and Pickering in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” there is a very funny, misogynistic conversation between the two men about how the female-free ritual of a squash game, a shower, a pint in a pub and lunch is the essence of male bonding.)
The dissolution of the affair becomes final in 1975, by which time Emma has become distracted by her job as a gallery owner and the arrangement seems too demanding for their waning passion. It ends with some acrimony. As it happens, the real unraveling began two years earlier when, on vacation in Venice, Robert discovers his wife’s betrayal. Or perhaps the whole thing began to fray even two years earlier, when Emma told Jerry she was pregnant with Robert’s child.
Of course no one writes quite like Pinter, with a combination of icy, sardonic brilliance that imperceptibly morphs into barely suppressed rage and pain veiled by a brittle protective layer of wicked wit. (Tom Stoppard clearly tapped into this same vein later, in “The Real Thing.”)
Lauren Shouse (a freelance director who also serves as literary manager of Northlight Theatre) brings just the right chilly, razor-sharp edginess to the production, and her actors capture the tension, fatigue and devastation that so much lying (whether to themselves or others) can generate.
The elegant, delicately beautiful Boucher captures just the right balance between bitch and bewitched. Guinan-Nyhart’s Jerry suggests a man who knows he can have things both way yet finally wakes up to the searing authenticity of his true home and family. And Neagle is just right as the man who married the golden girl but never fully possessed her.
Comic relief comes in the form of a scene in which the two men have lunch in an Italian restaurant where the waiter is played by Richard Cotovsky.
And a final note of praise for Lauren Nigri’s set (ideally lit by Becca Jeffords), which transforms Raven’s intimate West Stage space into an alley configuration anchored by two large, loft-like windows, and makes possible split-second changes of place and mood. Like the relationships in this play, those windows are not entirely transparent.