ST. PETERSBURG — Harold Pinter gets men right, or at least he gets Englishmen right. Betrayal is Pinter's comedy of manners about Robert, a publisher, and the affair between his wife, Emma, a gallery owner, and Jerry, an author's agent who was best man at their wedding.
Jerry's betrayal of Robert went on for years, but the publisher, who himself has had affairs, couldn't be more blase about it. Instead, it's Jerry who feels betrayed that his oldest friend knew about the affair and didn't tell him when he knew.
"Why didn't you tell me?'' Jerry demands of Robert. "That you knew. You bastard.''
Pinter's play on love and sex and relationships in upper-middle-class London is full of evasive small talk. The first affectionate physical touch is not between Emma and either Robert or Jerry, but occurs in scene four between the two men, a comradely cuff by Robert on Jerry's shoulder over an invitation to play squash.
Drew DeCaro is Robert and Kevin Bergen is Jerry in the American Stage production that opened this past weekend, and there's an uneasy edge to their male bonding that rings true. DeCaro gives the publisher a brute aggressiveness, toying with Bergen's wormy agent. Robert seems complicit in the affair between his wife and friend in a creepy sort of way, while Jerry comes across as naive. Still, for all the underlying anxiety between Robert and Jerry, their bookish shop talk over a boozy lunch at an Italian restaurant is hilarious.
Pinter is less persuasive in his treatment of Emma, the rather obscure object of desire in Betrayal. Julie Rowe gives a magnificently nuanced portrayal of a smart, sophisticated woman as victim in a velvet-lined rut. Emma shows some spunk when she bitterly ends the affair by flinging at Jerry the keys to their flat for afternoon assignations, but mostly she appears overwhelmed by a profound loss.
The story unfolds backward in nine concise scenes, though several go forward in time. Pinter's ingenious structure reflects his preoccupation with the past and the impossibility of remembering it honestly.
The American Stage players, directed by Todd Olson, do not attempt English accents, though there is the hint of one in Rowe's clipped sense of reserve and the occasional plummy outburst by DeCaro. The Pinteresque pauses and silences are fluently incorporated into the dialogue.
A problematic change was to set the action in the present, rather than the play's 1968-1977, when relations between men and women were not yet totally upended by the sexual revolution and feminism. Some 30 years later, the chilly, dispassionate style of Betrayal seems a bit dated, even for England.
Englishness is very much the point of Betrayal, which is somewhat reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (the movie especially, with its famous nude wrestling scene by Alan Bates and Oliver Reed) for its suggestions of homoerotic attraction between Robert and Jerry. In some ways, the play can be seen as Pinter's Camelot, with the cuckolded King Arthur, his straying Queen Guinevere and her lover Lancelot transplanted to modern London.
Designer Scott Cooper outdid himself in his elaborate set for Betrayal, which is suffused in Joseph P. Oshry's melancholy blue lighting and Philip Glass' repetitive, unsettling music.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.