We’re just past the halfway point now of our six week run of Harold Pinter’s BETRAYAL at the Lantern Theater Company. Earlier this week we had our final scheduled post-show audience talkback. I’ve been really excited by the intelligent discourse initiated by our audiences, as inspired by the play.
The plot deals with a seven-year affair that Jerry (Jered McLenigan) has with Emma (Genevieve Perrier) despite the fact that her husband Robert (myself) is his best and oldest friend. (Ryan Hagan also has a delightful cameo as an Italian waiter in Act Two.) But Pinter doles out the plot of BETRAYAL in reverse chronological order, twisting Time and showing us the “end “ of the story at the beginning of the play and working backwards to show us the “beginning” in the final scene.
Our talk-back questions often began with this particular story-telling device, and an interesting observation emerged: Even though we learn how the story “ends” after the first two scenes of the play (the backwards time jumping first occurs before scene three), an audience can still only discover the full course of the story in real, forward time. As such, Pinter has ensured that in every scene, there is something new for the audience to learn about the narrative, sometimes by way of adding unexpected, new information, sometimes by finding surprising ways to subvert what the audience thinks they know already. I believe, at it’s heart, this is largely what BETRAYAL is about; exploring who knows what and when they know it, how they use that knowledge to hold power over others, and the lies they are willing to tell (or the truths they are willing to omit) to maintain that control. These revelations are spooled out gradually with each successive scene, and so the multi-layered discovery process - for the audience in real time, and for the characters in backward time - is very much part of the pleasure of watching the show.
The play is also populated by interesting characters who make a collection of very interesting choices - and not all of those characters are even seen onstage during the play. Judith is Jerry’s oft mentioned, but never seen wife. She is discussed directly or referred to in every scene of the play except the very last one. She is not only Jerry’s wife, but the mother of their two children, and has a full career as a medical doctor (in 1960s/70s England, no less!). She is clearly an impressive woman, and none of our talk-back audiences failed to bring her up. They openly wondered many things about her; her unseen exploits, wondering if and with whom she might be having affairs of her own, pondering if she really might have known all along about Jerry’s affair with Emma. I like to think that generating that much curiosity in a character we never even see is a strong endorsement for the show - or at least for the strength of Pinter’s writing.
(As a bit of side trivia: Pinter liked to send the first drafts of his plays to Samuel Beckett to get his thoughts and advice. After first responding to Pinter how much he liked the text, Beckett then followed up several weeks later to say, “I think of BETRAYAL. Strange poor present Judith throughout as if invisible watching it all.”)
The audiences’ curiosity was in no way limited to Judith. They frequently asks us why we thought our characters made the decisions they did, what we thought might have happened next, whether or not it was possible that some of the characters STILL hadn’t been entirely truthful about what they had done or when, and so on.
So each of those conversations proved to be extremely thoughtful and engaging, but honestly that dialog essentially exists during the performance every night. It’s a very satisfying play to perform, as Jered, Genevieve, Ryan and I navigate the revelations and omissions with each audience. Even Becca Smith, our stage manager, has said it’s the rare show that even she feels she must “perform” each night, feeling out the house’s responses and reactions and judging when to hold or execute certain cues from the booth (especially ends of scenes) in order to direct and give space for their discovery of the play each night.
A friend who saw the show recently asked afterwards what I thought was the message that Pinter wanted the audience to take away from the play. I honestly don’t know if I know the answer to that. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe there is. I think it’s entirely possible that Pinter’s impetus to write was simply a personal examination of his own experiences, as he himself had a seven year affair with Joan Blackwell until only a few years before he wrote this play. But I think there is more in the fabric of the play than just that: A study of memory, the passage of time, and why we love the people we love, and perhaps the ways in which we are willing to compete in order to attain or retain them.
Suffice it to say, though this has been my first opportunity to work on one of Pinter’s plays, I hope the next opportunity comes around soon.
I’ve realized lately that reviews are less and less important to me, but I do still read them, and the reviews we’ve received for this production have been largely very positive:
-Toby Zinman, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, described our production as “A subtle, powerful rendition of Harold Pinter’s delicious, sinister love triangle.”
-Howard Shapiro, for WHYY, wrote that the show, “comes off with a quiet passion; directed with precision; and performed with enormous reserve.” He says he once thought he never wanted to see the play again, but, “Lantern’s satisfying production makes me glad I did.”
-Rebecca Rendell, writing for Talkin’ Broadway, offered me a special shout out, writing that, “Isaac’s passionate stoicism is a thing of beauty and reason enough to see this production before it closes,” adding that the production is, “Frequently funny, consistently engaging, and marvelously enigmatic.”
And yes, we also got one review from a once notable reviewer which was so full of venom and snark that I could barely take it seriously. I offer it to you here with no shame whatsoever.
Our BETRAYAL will continue through February 17th, for 8 performances a week at the Lantern Theater Company here in Center City, Philadelphia. I hope you’ll get a chance to see it for yourself.