Betrayal at Zoetic Stage: Perfect Pacing and Subtle Drama

From time to time, Betrayal has the balls to be boring.

One of the great ironic treatises on infidelity, Harold Pinter's semiautobiographical 1978 mood piece is a play of little action. There is a series of scenes that reveal their purposes gradually, like yellowed photographs slowly coming into focus. It's the words that make up for this often-sedentary work — words that prod and provoke and puncture — and especially the spaces between the words. Pinter was famous for writing protracted silences in the middle of his characters' conversations. And in Zoetic Stage's bold, possibly alienating but ultimately winning production, director Stuart Meltzer's pauses linger as long as most modern audiences will accept. There are few so lengthy that you forget the previous line of dialogue, but any production that respects Pinter's wishes, as this one does, is a tortoise in a hare's world. It doggedly resists the rapid-fire temptations of most film, TV, and stage writing in favor of deliberation that, in its unfamiliar way, is far more realistic.

The actors, then, are allowed to let comments sink in before firing back with a response. They can properly register disbelief when flummoxed, even if that means standing frozen and slack-jawed while the seconds of dead air accumulate. For spectators tired of the familiar rat-a-tat pacing of the majority of contemporary plays, this languorous style brings inestimable pleasure.

Meltzer draws intelligent, understated work from his cast while limiting their capacity to even nibble on scenes.

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As if the frequent sounds of silence weren't challenging enough to paradigms and attention spans, Betrayal also plays out in reverse chronology — avant-garde in its time and still radical today. It begins in England in 1977, when Emma (Amy McKenna) meets former lover Jerry (Nicholas Richberg) for the first time since they broke off their seven-year affair two years prior. Both were married with children, and Emma's husband, Robert (Chaz Mena), was Jerry's best friend before he married Emma. So yeah, it's complicated.

The narrative unspools backward over nine scenes and 90 unbroken stage minutes, leading all the way to the affair's 1968 inception, a happier time of raging libidos and blissful ignorance. Along the way, the characters discover betrayals within betrayals. It takes a Rumsfeldian logic to parse these characters' level of awareness during any given scene: The play's elusive emotional core lies somewhere among the shifting pattern of known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Meltzer draws intelligent, understated work from his cast while limiting their capacity to even nibble on scenes, let alone chew them. Significance rests in seemingly insignificant gestures: brotherly chest smacks that land a bit harder than necessary, certain syllables strained for effect, a glass tumbler placed a little too forcefully on a table. In their awkward early scenes together, when the affair has petered out to its unceremonious end, Richberg and McKenna are restricted in mobility, part of a mannered style that requires them to embody character mostly through posture and gesture. They look at anything but each other, staring forward, off to the side or at their own shoes, in a veritable ballet of evasion before finally holding each other's gaze.

Later, Richberg and Mena circle each other around a central point in Michael McKeever's capacious set design, sizing each other up like roosters at a cockfight. As a guy who represses savage impulses behind an Everyman exterior, Mena is particularly nuanced in his performance, from his Parkinsonian shaking of his liquor glass to the prying contempt with which he interrogates his wife to the silent near-scream of anguish when he learns of Emma's affair (though occasionally, Mena's British accent becomes garbled and difficult to understand).

If there aren't enough moments of such raw emotion, it's hard to fault the treatment. Pinter's cosmopolitan characters discuss squash, literature, and Venetian gondolas — but they're not accustomed to unpacking their feelings. Betrayal draws much of its tension from the dialectical battle between passion and propriety, with the latter frequently keeping the former at arm's length.

Some of the production's dramaturgical decisions are just as eccentric as Pinter's unorthodox diction. Why do the characters constantly refill their libations even when their glasses are three-quarters full? Are the characters not downing them quickly enough? Why is the play's one rather timid sex scene, between McKenna and Richberg, performed fully clothed? Why does Mena, while sitting at an Italian restaurant, demand an entrée from his waiter while never touching the appetizer in front of him?

These are not the only curious choices Meltzer employs. He may lose some of the Pinter purists in his reimagining of the staging, but this writer found his overall aesthetic daring and effective, starting with the presence of standup bassist Dave Wilkinson providing jazzy notes during each scene transition. The immediacy of his skillfully ambiguous playing just wouldn't have been captured in a recorded track.

Then there's McKeever's set, which includes a courthouse-style edifice atop which the characters perch when they're not involved in a scene. Meltzer has them sit in shame and/or judgment while others talk about them in the scenes below, acting at various times as wordless moral arbiters. The show begins and ends with all three sitting in this silent purgatory, with Emma, naturally, placed between the two men in her life. This adds an almost metaphysical undercurrent to the play, brazenly realizing Meltzer's promised "fresh take" on this postmodern classic.

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John Thomason