By Hugh Hunter
Maybe it takes three to tango. At least, nobody in “Betrayal” by Harold Pinter, now running at Allens Lane Theater, seems content to settle for the usual two.
In this non-linear show, I am not playing the spoiler by telling you that the opening scene, set in 2017, is the real conclusion. With stilted dialogue that matches their relationship stagnation, lovers Emma and Jerry end a secret, seven-year extra-marital affair.
But how secret was it? As we wind back in time to year 2008, stopping at other years along the way, complicated and sometimes comical layers of knowledge, duplicity and betrayal are laid bare.
Kellie Cooper has the good looks to play an erotic and sensual Emma, an art gallery manager. Cooper fills in eerie gaps in Pinter’s pinched dialogue with a host of nuanced gestures. Cold and distant by 2017, Emma was much more lively in 2008.
Husband Robert (Dante Zappala) is a publisher. As with Emma, the composure we see in 2017 feels like a kind of death. We see that Robert agonized over Emma’s infidelity in earlier years. He seems to have coped by cultivating cruelty and self-pity.
Only lover boy Jerry (Marc C Johnson) lacks dark undercurrents. A literary agent and long-time friend of Robert, this operator is mostly bland and naive. Amusingly, he feels betrayed as he learns all the secrets Emma and Robert have kept from him.
Betrayal is an off-center comic-tragedy. In this fast-paced, 90-minute show there is a steady build-up of suspense and especially, comic irony, so we would be better off without the 15-minute intermission. Otherwise, the production is full of strengths.
Director Robert Bauer’s set design is striking in its navy gray and white simplicity, helping make relationships more intense. Strong actors profit from London-born Carole Mancini’s dialect coaching. While sound designer Kim Pelle uses the “Nuevo Tango” music of Astor Pianzzolla; its unpredictable mix of gaiety and sorrow perfectly underscores Pinter’s tone.
Characters make frequent references to people we never see. We learn a lot about Jerry’s wife, Ruth, and a couple of writers, Casey and Spinx, protégés of Jerry and Robert. And both lovers have two young children. You wonder what effect the bitter ending of this failed affair will have on the lives of others? Do Emma, Jerry and Robert even give the matter due attention?
These people live inside the bubble of their problems, but in a less dramatic way, don’t we all? Nobel Prize winner Pinter made his big splash in the 1950s and ‘60s with enigmatic plays in the spirit of Beckett, full of comic absurdity and menace. With “Betrayal,” these same qualities mutate into a more approachable form.
Allens Lane Theater is located at 601 W. Allens Lane. “Betrayal” will run through May 21. Reservations available at 215-248-0546 or allenslane.org