BWW Review: Pinter's BETRAYAL at Lantern Theater Company is Poignant and Profound
The heart wants what the heart wants, and so we tell each other - and ourselves - the lies needed to get it. Betrayal is a sophisticated drama and a devastatingly honest exploration of love, sex, marriage, and friendship. Told backwards from the end to the beginning, Harold Pinter's narrative masterpiece will move and astonish you.
Betrayal begins in 1977 with a meeting between Emma (played by Geneviève Perrier) and Jerry (played by Jered McLenigan), two years after their love affair has ended. Pinter's narrative employs reverse chronology, moving backwards and concluding with the affair's beginning in 1968 in the home of Emma and Robert (played by Gregory Issac)-Emma's husband and Jerry's best friend. By casting its eye backwards across the nine-year affair, Pinter's sophisticated drama deftly reveals the ways we betray each other-and ourselves.
Lantern Theater Company's production of Pinter's Betrayal is a part of the company's 25th anniversary season.
Lantern's performance space at St. Stephen's Theater on 10th and Ludlow is intimate. The street is around the corner from church and off of Market Street. You may not even know the theater was there if you wern't looking for it. But down the sidestreet and up the stairs lies an amazing production of Pinter's profound play Betrayal that you don't want to miss.
Upstairs at St. Stephen's Theater, the "stage" is catty-cornered to the house doors with the audience on either side. It is almost set in a sort of modified three-quarter round, which makes the play very interesting because (similarly to how to characters in the play perceive the action of the play) the picture is different depending on your point of view. Where you are seated in the audience affects how you see the play, as opposed to a "proscenium arch" theater where the picture is essentially the same for the entire audience because the audience views the picture straight-on. It makes sense that Lantern's production features directing where the picture looks different from different angles because, after all, Pinter's play is really all about perception. Being in the three-quarter round makes for an interesting challenge for Betrayal director Kathryn MacMillan, but ultimately MacMillan's directing is highly effective: dynamic, natural and fluid.
The intimate setting of Lantern's space is also perfect for Pinter's play because it emphasizes the "realness" of the play and emphasizes the discomfort. Pinter's work is notorious for the "Pinter Pause" a phrase used to describe the silences, or lengthy pauses, Pinter wrote into his scripts. The "Pinter Pause" is a tool Pinter used frequently in his work. The first scene of Betrayal where Emma sits with Jerry in a pub features some of these pauses, and right off the bat, the audience is unsure of the silence. Did the actor's drop a line? What's happening? But, that's not it at all. Yes, the "Pinter pause" may make you uncomfortable, but that is the point. Perhaps, the most intriguing thing about Pinter's script is it's "realness" or the way it mimics reality. Well, in real life, when we have conversations, there are such pauses. And if these pauses do make you uncomfortable, then good. That means Pinter, the director, and the actors have all done their job. It is supposed to make you uneasy because the heaviness in those moments, the real acting, the real story, is in what is not being said. So often, theatre is just a rambling of words and talking. But Pinter's Betrayal is also about listening. Filling Pinter's silences can be daunting, but MacMillan, and the actors in her production really show their chops by filling these pauses and making them meaningful, acting by reacting.
Lantern's Betrayal has a fairly bare set with white walls, wooden floor and hints of mod interior design. The white walls are a perfect blank canvas for Shannon Zura's clever lighting design and the projected subtitles that are cast onto the walls while Christopher Colucci's original music underscores the transitions between scenes. Though the set itself (just a table and chairs, a bar, an armchair, and some versatile ottomans) is very simple, there are subtleties in the production design to focus your eye. Meghan Jones' set design is very simple, but smart and effective. There are only hints of color, and the bookshelves above the bar are decorated with white décor that lovers the eye and can easily be projected onto. "The physical world of our production, then-spare and fluid-is meant to make room for the play's real action: its language." MacMillan writes in her director's note.
And it's true. Betrayal is all about the language. Pinter was primarily a poet, and the words in his script are chosen with care. Every word (and every pause) has gravitas making Betrayal particularly poignant. "With Betrayal, Pinter as high priest of alienation has created one of the most devastatingly honest and heartbreaking pictures ever of human aspiration, vanity, need, and self-deception," Artistic Director Charles McMahon writes in the playbill. From the moment Betrayal begins, you can tell that there is something different about this play. It is seemingly casual and colloquial, but upon examination, Pinter's craftsmanship becomes clear. There is so much underneath the surface level. And even when the production is over and the house lights come up, I can guarantee that you will still be thinking about and wanting to talk about what you just saw.
Besides the distinctly mod décor, projected dates, and costume designer LeVonne Lindsay's retro looks, Betrayal is a timeless tale. The story is personal, relatable, and transcendent. The plot is not particularly period nor are the questions the play prompts: Where does loyalty lie? If we can't trust those closest to us, can we even trust ourselves? Perhaps not, because Emma, Jerry and Robert lie to each other, but they also all lie to themselves. Even the marriage between Emma and Robert is a lie. One of the most hard-hitting lines in Betrayal is when Robert says to Emma "I've always like him (Jerry) more than you." (Also emphasizing the dichotomy in the personalities between the stern and almost brutish Robert versus the loving free-wheeling Jerry).
On a lighter note, Ryan Hagan as the Waiter in the scene where Jerry and Robert meet for lunch provides a nice comic relief and was absolutely enjoyable to watch.
Time moves differently in Pinter's Betrayal. The play moves backwards through time, starting in 1977 at the end of Emma and Jerry's affair, and going back in time until the last scene of the play when the affair began in 1968. Betrayal director Kathyrn MacMillan writes in her director's note, "Ultimately Pinter's characters are at the mercy of time. They will be betrayed by it, as much as they are betrayed by spouses, lovers, and friends." Many dramatic critics recognize that Betrayal is based off of Pinter's own experience with an extramarital affair he had with TV presenter Joan Bakewell. Perhaps that is why the writing seems so real and non-judgmental. Betrayal has villain or victim. All of the characters are equally culpable or something.
The backwards timeline is also a logistical challenge. However, Lindsay does a fantastic job of making the actors look younger as the play progresses.
Pinter's structure for this play echoes that of which one might recall a memory, starting at the main event and moving backwards in time. It is an intriguing structure. We know from the first scene that Emma and Jerry are having an affair. The motivation of the play is not the "what", instead the play is character-driven and almost detective-like because the audience becomes invested in the "how" and the "why" the events occurred.
Pinter's writing is a treasure chest for dramatic critics, and his work has been revolutionary in theatre history. I absolutely recommend if you have an opportunity to see this production that you read the notes from the dramaturg in the playbill which provide even more background to further understand and appreciate the play. There is also a plethora of additional content and information on Lantern Theater Company's blog "Searchlight" at www.lanterntheater.org/searchlight.
Lantern Theater Company's Betrayal is an absolutely compelling and poignant production. The play is profound and personal, and the performance is very engaging. You cannot have an excellent production of this play without actors that have strong chemistry, and Perrier, McLenigan, and Isaac have more chemistry onstage than Marie Curie's lab.
Lantern Theater Company's Betrayal plays through Feb. 17th at St. Stephen's Theater on 10th and Ludlow Streets in Philadelphia. Tickets for Betrayal can be purchased online at www.lanterntheater.org or by calling the Lantern Theater Company box office at (215)829-0395.
Up next for Lantern Theater Company is Measure for Measure playing March 14th through April 21st.