betrayalBy Philip Pearce

SOMERSET MAUGHAM said that writing a good play means discovering what it’s about and then sticking stubbornly to the point. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal does just that. The title tells what it’s about, and the script never looks at anything but the combinations and permutations of betraying or being betrayed—in this case by marital infidelity.

In major earlier works, like The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, Pinter’s characters act from motives ranging from the puzzling to the impenetrable. Confused, challenged and sometimes repelled, you still can’t stop watching these sordid strangers build their own alien world with its own murky patterns of believability.

With Betrayal, which just opened at the Pac Rep Circle Theater, it’s different.

Emma, her husband Robert and her lover Jerry are anything but grubby enigmas. Informed, witty, moving in civilized surroundings, tastefully dressed, they seem like characters who would fit seamlessly into a Coward or Rattigan comedy. It’s what Pinter does with this familiar material that makes it so disturbing and memorable. To start with, he tightens the tension by upending normal chronology. Scene 1 starts with the aftermath of Jerry and Emma’s affair and we move, sequence by sequence, back to its beginnings seven years earlier.

Who knew what about whom and when did they know it? Betrayal happens in a world where lying is as natural as breathing and what seems to be real or true now is unmasked a scene or so later as false and self-serving. At one point Emma appears to break through the ugly crust of deception and tell the truth about when and how Robert has learned she is betraying him with Jerry. But a later (earlier) sequence reveals, almost casually, that her refreshing breakthrough into truth is just another face-saving lie. There are wonderful ironies. Jerry feels huffy and ill-used when Emma admits that she’s pregnant, not by him but by her legal spouse Robert.

Pinter is a master of the twists and turns dialogue takes to cover embarrassment or deception. It can be nervous repetition, as in the opening scene, where Emma and Jerry, no longer lovers, struggle to show interest in and a lingering affection for each other by asking again and again some form of “How are you? I hope you’re doing well.” Their repeated banal expressions of concern manage to seem sincere and at the same time subtly dismissive.

When Jerry and Robert, who are lifelong best friends, natter on inanely about differences between male and female baby tantrums or why women should never be involved in games of squash, Pinter isn’t ignoring Maugham’s advice and wandering off onto rabbit trails of empty banter. The irrelevancies are smoke screens hiding some new piece of betrayal or a defense against the possible revelation of an old one. People on stage, like people in life, don’t always say exactly what they mean. It’s called subtext and Pinter knows how to use it brilliantly.

All of this calls for incisive and subtle acting. Kenneth Kelleher has cast and ably directed three performers who know how to tell a story that depends as much on what isn’t happening on the surface as what is. Watch the gifted Julie Hughett as she listens to information being told her by Robert which threatens her relationship with Jerry in a way that Robert mustn’t know about but Jerry does. Without a touch of mugging, Hughett briefly but clearly projects both messages.

The two men are just as good. As the cuckolded Robert, Michael Ray Wisely is never the daunted victim. He shades his performance so that we are continually re-assessing how much he knows and how he is using it to feed and complicate his own pattern of deceptions.

Paul Jennings is excellent as a spontaneous and impulsive Jerry, who manages to persuade himself and almost to persuade us that, undetected by Robert, he can sleep regularly with Emma and still remain Robert’s best friend.

The three speak in convincingly British tones, possibly coached by the production’s only native born Brit, the wonderful Howard Burnham, who appears briefly but delightfully as a waiter with a heavy Italian accent.

Pinter didn’t conjure this story out of thin air. Before Betrayal opened at London’s National Theatre back in 1978 he showed the script to B.B.C. personality Joan Bakewell, who publicly expressed her indignation at the detailed parallels between Pinter’s text and an extramarital affair she had had with him between 1962 and 1969.

Another dictum of good play writing, but not from Somerset Maugham, is “write about what you know,” and I guess Betrayal does that too.

It continues in PRT’s Circle Theater through May 28th.