In the canon of infidelity drama, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal may hold the distinction of being the least … adulterated. A lean story of a seven-year affair between a woman and her husband’s best friend, it isn’t weighed down by details of dreary marriages intended to make the lovers more sympathetic. Nor does it detour into too-typical revenge fantasy: After the woman confesses to her husband, both the affair and the marriage carry on — as does the two men’s friendship. If you enjoy your tales of extramarital liaisons with, say, a side of boiled rabbit, Betrayal may not be for you.
But as a focused exploration of human duplicity, Betrayal is an unembellished marvel and this Broadway revival gives the 1978 play a smart, stripped down treatment. The cast, imported from last spring’s London production, includes Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the Marvel films and forthcoming Disney+ series), and Charlie Cox (the title role in Netflix’s Daredevil). Along with British actress Zawe Ashton (Velvet Buzzsaw), Hiddleston and Cox come with long theater resumes; they are both terrific sprung from their comic book trappings.
Director Jamie Lloyd, a frequent Pinter interpreter, responds to the spare text with a staging to match: The set is framed in bare, graphite-colored walls, furnished with only an occasional chair and folding table. There are no costume changes, unless you count the retucking of a shirt. (The scenic and costume design is by Soutra Gilmour.) Virtually the only props are the bottles and glasses that keep our three principals in the drink. The lighting (by Jon Clark) is stark, throwing shadows of the three characters up on those empty walls and echoing their doubled lives.
In a script based on an affair Pinter carried on during his first marriage, his only narrative indulgence is to tell the story in reverse: The play opens two years following the end of the affair with a chaste if flirtatious reunion between art gallerist Emma (Ashton) and literary agent Jerry (Cox) on the day after Emma and her husband Robert (Hiddleston), a publisher of some of Jerry’s authors, have decided to separate. Over the course of a tense 90 minutes, Betrayal winds back to the moment nine years earlier when everything we’ve just witnessed now seems inevitable. From the start, we know what the characters do not: How this will end. In exchange for that insight (which hardly qualifies as a spoiler: What love triangle ever turned out happily?) we are treated to pleasurable shocks of irony and melancholy.
A production this minimalist depends on its performances. Hiddleston’s turn has the restraint and winning edge of a poker sharp. Robert often knows more than either his friend or wife suspects, giving him a power and calm unusual in a cuckolded husband; Hiddleston wields that advantage with a chilling smile. However, in the moment when his suspicions about his wife are confirmed, there is real emotion, teary eyes and all. We’ve already learned Robert can be cruel, so this display, coming when it does, is affecting.
Cox, too, is well fit to his part: The also-married Jerry is affable, appealing — exactly the good-natured sort of fellow you would not expect to have set up a daytime-use flat with his oldest friend’s wife. As the woman between them, Ashton begins tightly coiled upon herself, twitchy and punctuating Emma and Jerry’s post-affair catch-up with nervous smiles. Thankfully, as we return to earlier days, Ashton drops some of that mannered approach to show us the woman, both cool and practical, who navigated a divided life until it no longer suited her.
Though the action consists mainly of two-person scenes (two lovers, two spouses, two best friends), Lloyd keeps all three actors on stage. Seen by the audience but not by the speaking characters, the odd-person-out wordlessly reminds us that he or she is never out-of-mind for the others. It’s a simple yet stirring device. In fact, the formula is so effective, it is jarring when Lloyd messes with it: Why bring out a child actor to illustrate the daughter to whom the characters only refer? Some comic business with a (scripted) Italian waiter also unnecessarily ripples the show’s otherwise sleek tone.
The dialogue, particularly between the two men, suggests the thrilling volley of a tennis match. But Robert, as we are frequently reminded, is a squash enthusiast. Whereas in tennis each player stays on his own side of the court, in squash the competitors share a confined, four-walled game space — collisions are inevitable. And, as with great infidelity dramas, that too is part of the spectacle. B+