British playwright Harold Pinter is one of the few 20th-century writers who gave his name to the language. The word "Pinteresque" suggests equal measures of menace and mystery. The cruelest thing about his 1978 play "Betrayal," now splendidly revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre, is that it doesn't seem Pinteresque at all. What could be menacing about a play in which the main characters are a publisher, a literary agent and a woman who runs an art gallery? Instead of the edgy underworld of Pinter's early plays, we are in the safe confines of cultured, upper-middle-class London. And what could be mysterious about a play in which the short first scene essentially reveals the entire plot? Within a few minutes, we have learned that Emma and Jerry have had a seven-year affair, even though Emma's husband, Robert, is also Jerry's best friend. Instead of all that weird and nasty Pinteresque stuff, the story seems reassuringly familiar from a hundred French farces and a thousand English melodramas. But all of this is deeply deceptive. In what it does to its audience, "Betrayal" is every inch a Pinter play. In most dramas, the audience starts out knowing nothing, and gradually learns more. In "Betrayal," as in all of Pinter's work, we start out knowing very little - and gradually become more ignorant. This is partly because the action of "Betrayal" moves backward. Beginning two years after the end of the affair between Emma and Jerry, it loops all the way back to the moment when it all began. The point, though, is not to explain what happened and why. It's to show that these people are utterly inexplicable because they don't even know their own secrets. The treachery goes deep. Emma and Jerry betray Robert. Robert lies to Jerry by not telling him that he has discovered their affair. Emma and Jerry are never completely open with each other. We have entered a hall of distorting mirrors in which nothing - not language or memory or emotion - can be trusted. It's not just time that works in reverse - everything else does, too. What grips us is not what these people say but what remains unsaid. The characters' stark, clipped words are simply a way of not talking. The cool, ironic control they maintain at moments when we expect emotional outbursts is a way of not feeling. "Betrayal," then, makes very particular demands of the actors. Instead of the usual task of interpreting and fleshing out the dialogue, they must somehow suggest an invisible pool of unacknowledged pain. What makes David Leveaux' production so enthralling is that the actors do this with remarkable fluidity, wit and even humor. As Emma, Juliette Binoche translates her beauty and slightly exotic French presence into a powerful image of a woman at one remove from what is happening around her. Though immensely lively and engaging, her Emma has a ruthless quality that is exactly right for the part. That touch of steel in Binoche's performance allows both Liev Schreiber's Jerry and John Slattery's Robert the freedom to make their characters more sympathetic than might be expected. Schreiber achieves the melancholy grandeur of a man whose triumph of sexual conquest carries with it an inevitable doom. Slattery makes Robert's jokey, ironic reaction to his humiliation seem noble rather than merely pathetic. Together, the performances reveal enough to be vividly alluring, but not so much that they fill in the essential mystery. For this, Leveaux and his production team deserve a great deal of credit. Rob Howell's set, a stark but airy room, places the action halfway between reality and dream. David Weiner's outstanding lighting design manages to illuminate the play's haunting absences. And Leveaux' direction is perfectly true to the hypnotic rhythms of Pinter's language. In this ravishing production, everything is faithful to a great playwright's vision of intimate treachery.
Bouquets, large extravagant bouquets are due to one and all for Harold Pinter's "Betrayal," which was resuscitated, enlivened and indeed delivered last night by the Roundabout Theater Company at its American Airlines Theater.
Throw them to the cast, the dazzlingly enigmatic Juliette Binoche, the forcefully baffled Liev Schreiber, and the quietly commanding John Slattery, and throw them to the resourceful and subtle director, David Leveaux, and the cool designer Rob Howell.
Oh, yes - and while we're at it throw one to Pinter himself.
Good plays, well perhaps only great plays, mature with time - they become not only a monument and an expression of their moment, but also absorb that past to become a living commentary on the present.
"Betrayal," probably Pinter's most perfect if not his best play, was quite coolly received when it first appeared in London more than 20 years ago, and, with a lesser cast, fared little better on Broadway.
A beautifully acted 1983 movie version admired by a few, flatlined at the box-office and became a cult video.
But now, in Leveaux' present staging, this funny, prickly and absolutely marvelous comedy of ill manners, stands proud in its shabby, opalescent glory. Its time has come.
"Betrayal" tells a story of love, adultery and, yes, betrayal. But what it really does is to paint its time and place, suggesting the shifting morality of a late 20th century literary London, rudderless on a limitless ocean.
The play is concerned with the evasions and tiny lies always concealing half-truths (seemingly inherent in the English language). And with the awesome breeziness of the British in emotional pain. And with the bleak ironic humor of people of honor rather than standards.
Pinter, like his older contemporary the novelist Graham Greene, is a prose poet of the little private agonies of sexual despair.
Yet in "Betrayal" he is careful not to face those agonies head-on - he recognizes life often deals in double negatives. As one of his characters says to another: "I don't think we don't love each other."
And here the playwright's eternal triangle of wife, husband and lover, often scarcely remember who, what and how they loved. Pinter is much obsessed with the remembrance of things past, or rather the fuzzy, often spinning, recollection of our personal history.
This personal memory machine we all possess is demonstrated by Pinter by telling his story back to front in flashback - we see the ending first and then tortuously wend our way back to the beginning, delightedly noting discrepancies and picking up explanations.
Despite its passion and wayward poetry, "Betrayal" is almost unexpectedly hilarious. What fools these mortals be, and we look at them smugly from our theater seats with a wonderfully amused superiority - mixed, I hope, with compassion.
As with his excursion into marital infidelity last season - with Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" - Leveaux is a master at pulling out the truth and humor from a text, and this is precisely what he has done here.
And the actors are a consummate joy - although their accents are somewhat mingled and mangled, their performances are virtually pitch perfect.
Binoche, making her New York stage debut, slides into the faithless, yet sincere wife Emma, as effortlessly as the extraordinary Schreiber twists and turns as the heavily-married seducer, Jerry.
Most surprising of all is John Slattery, the least known of the trio, who contributes a surely definitive account of the elusive cuckolded husband, Robert.
This is a play to see, to laugh at, and to take home with you, and perhaps ponder on in the privacy of your thoughts. For perhaps betrayals have become the common currency of our lives. But then perhaps they always were.
Thinking is not usually classified as a spectator sport. But when it's Liev Schreiber who is doing the cogitation, you tend to sit up, watch closely and suddenly feel like cheering. Mr. Schreiber is in the stylish but seriously imbalanced new revival of Harold Pinter's ''Betrayal,'' from the Roundabout Theater Company, and this dramatically cerebral actor guarantees that those famous Pinteresque silences are not empty.
Best known for his work on film and television (the ''Scream'' movies, ''RKO 281''), Mr. Schreiber is not what you would call an animated presence. His face, a blank canvas of pale flesh accented by circumflex eyebrows, has a disturbing, masklike aspect.
Yet it also gives constant, specific external evidence of an internal life, charting trains of thought with cartographic precision, a trait that sliced right through the clutter that was Andrei Serban's ''Hamlet'' last season, when Mr. Schreiber played the title role. Even when this actor is on a big Broadway stage, you have the feeling that you are watching him in close-up.
This combination of mystery and intimacy makes Mr. Schreiber a natural for Pinter and especially for ''Betrayal,'' which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater in David Leveaux's eye-caressing, chilly production, which also stars John Slattery and the ravishing but miscast Juliette Binoche. This three-character drama, a study of marital infidelity told in reverse chronological order, is deceptive in its linear clarity.
Seemingly the most accessible of Mr. Pinter's major works, ''Betrayal'' draws you into a situation you think you know all too well, from literature if not life: the romantic triangle. But by unsettling degrees, you realize that not one of the trio involved in that relationship knows the whole story of what has happened. Mr. Pinter has invested a well-worn formula with a gnawing, transforming sense of just how opaque people remain to one another.
''Betrayal'' presents as many clues as an Agatha Christie novel, though with no promise of resolution. The pleasurable irritation in watching it comes from assembling these bits of data and realizing they never add up in the same way. This processing of information is what's reflected most acutely on Mr. Schreiber's face throughout, and he provides a bridge of empathy that pulls the audience directly into the central conflict.
Now it has to be stated that Mr. Schreiber's particular strength in this regard creates a slight problem. Ms. Binoche and Mr. Slattery bring their own considerable assets to ''Betrayal,'' but they don't strike the same balance between baffling and baffled that Mr. Schreiber achieves. An ideal ''Betrayal'' offers an equilateral triangle, in which the roles of manipulator and manipulated, of the wounder and the wounded, keep shifting. By simply being exactly right for his role, Mr. Schreiber stays firmly at the center of this version.
The plot of ''Betrayal'' is as simple as its characters are not. Jerry (Mr. Schreiber), a literary agent, is the lover of Emma (Ms. Binoche), who runs an art gallery and is married to Robert (John Slattery), a book publisher and Jerry's best friend. The evening begins with a meeting between Jerry and Emma two years after their relationship has ended and then proceeds backward. It ends eight years earlier, with the moment in which Jerry first declares his attraction to Emma.
Each of the work's nine scenes is a jewel of discreetly staggered revelations, in which it becomes apparent that everyone has lied to everyone else. The fascinating grip of ''Betrayal'' has much to do with how the characters register and disseminate such misinformation.
The play was largely dismissed by London critics when it opened in 1978, but its virtues became much clearer in David Jones's exquisite movie version of 1983, which starred Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge. ''Betrayal,'' which demands fractional changes of emphasis in expression that speak volumes, proved perfect for translation into film.
Mr. Leveaux's production, on the other hand, often keeps us at a distance. Rob Howell, the set and costume designer, and David Weiner, the lighting designer, have given the production an opulent minimalism, with sparsely furnished but majestic rooms soaked in changing light. The evening is emotionally color coded, beginning with drab neutrals and moving toward the rich crimson dress in which Ms. Binoche ends the evening.
The whole thing is as glacially glamorous as a Barney's window. It does tend to overwhelm the actors, however, who can look rather small and helpless in ways that, however symbolically appropriate, dilute psychological impact. And the concluding moment of each scene is usually drawn out to the point of diffusion.
Nonetheless, there are images that stay with you from this production, developing like photographic negatives in the memory. Mr. Slattery's brusque demeanor and barking delivery could use more variety. But every so often there's a change in posture, a tilt of the head or a slight leaning away from the others that sears in its suggestion of repressed pain.
Ms. Binoche, the French actress who won an Oscar for ''The English Patient,'' is a luscious presence here. In the evening's opening moments, in which Emma awaits the arrival of Jerry in a pub, she absolutely glows with a troubled anticipation that brings to mind the young Ingrid Bergman.
When she speaks, however, it becomes obvious that not having English as your first language is a disadvantage here. Because so much of the dangerous game playing of ''Betrayal'' is in verbal nuance, Emma is unnecessarily handicapped from the start and her stressing of certain words can seem bizarre. Nor does Ms. Binoche's great, instinctive physical expressiveness always serve the purposes of ambiguity.
Then there are those times, especially when Emma is regarding the two men in her life together, when Ms. Binoche provides exactly what is required: a sense of divided affections that by no means cancel each other out. Here she becomes a Pinter dream woman: mysterious, knowing and at least slightly the moral superior of the men.
Mr. Schreiber, on the other hand, never seems other than fully grounded in the bewildering murkiness of daily life. Even his assumed Englishness, with a touch of working class roughness, is ideal for the occasion.
It can be said of few American actors that they seem born to play Pinter, but Mr. Schreiber, who appeared in Mr. Pinter's ''Moonlight'' in 1995, truly does. In the last several years he has proved himself fluent in Shakespearean eloquence. His command here of the terser articulations of Mr. Pinter confirm Mr. Schreiber as one of the most gifted and complex actors of his generation.
Beautiful. Empty. A slight mist." The words describe a rural idyll in Harold Pinter's 1978 play "Betrayal," but they might also be used to characterize the play itself, or at least the Roundabout Theater Co.'s attractive but puzzlingly unaffecting new revival of it.
The elements all seemed to be in place for a memorable evening of theater. The British director, David Leveaux, was responsible for two of the most accomplished stagings of recent seasons, last season's Tony-winning "The Real Thing" and the prior season's "Electra." The assembled cast fairly reeks of sexiness, teaming Oscar winner Juliette Binoche with the exciting young actor Liev Schreiber and John Slattery, also a terrific stage performer. And the play itself appeared ready for Gotham reassessment; its Broadway premiere, starring Blythe Danner, Raul Julia and Roy Scheider, was a fast flop in 1980.
So what's that about best-laid plans? The resulting production is handsome on all counts. Aside from its toothsome cast it boasts stunningly chic sets and sleek costumes by Rob Howell -- the play might almost be taking place in the lobbies of various Ian Schrager hotels. The exquisitely effective lighting design is by David Weiner. Individual scenes move with a smooth ineluctability under Leveaux's subtle directorial hand. But for all that, it's dramatically weightless. Call it the supermodel of Broadway shows: gorgeous to look at, less exciting when it opens its mouth and a little anemic.
The play itself has undergone critical rehabilitation since its tepid initial reception, and has now gained a secure place in the Pinter canon. Part of its appeal is the cleverness of its construction. Although it famously moves backward in time, it is in many ways one of Pinter's most straightforward plays -- and the straightforward Pinter may not be as easy to stage effectively as the oblique one.
The three central characters are entirely recognizable figures, untouched by the halo of mystery or menace that hovers around so many Pinter personae. The dialogue, too, is unaffectedly natural, laced with sardonicism, certainly, and pocked with pauses, but far less stylized and obscure than is often the case with Pinter. And the events it describes are comfortably mundane: an adulterous love triangle, albeit one fraught with complicated emotional allegiances and unspoken treacheries.
Binoche plays Emma, a gallery owner who in the play's opening scene is meeting at a pub with her former lover Jerry (Schreiber). She's come to tell him that her husband, Robert (Slattery), is leaving her -- he's been having an affair, in fact has had many. This is of particular interest to Jerry because Robert is his best friend; he'd never been told. A bit flummoxed by this secrecy, he is also eager to know if Emma has told Robert about their long affair. She says she has, just last night.
But Jerry soon discovers that Emma has not quite told the truth. When he visits Robert to assess the damage to their friendship, Robert coolly informs him that Emma had in fact admitted to the affair four years earlier; it was Jerry, in essence, who was being deceived for the last years of the affair.
From here the play leapfrogs back in time to various turning points in the tangle of revelations and secrets that followed in the wake of Jerry's semi-intoxicated confession of love one night during a party at Emma and Robert's house. As the play progresses toward this last -- or first -- encounter, almost a decade earlier, we tot up the little betrayals that led to bigger ones, take note of who is concealing what at any given moment, calibrate the changing temperature of Emma and Jerry's affair. As an intellectual exercise, the production is good fun, but emotionally it's a game of diminishing returns.
For this it's hard to fault the actors, who give performances that are impeccable by any standards -- except, perhaps, the peculiar ones particular to Pinter. All three of the lead performances are too often emotionally direct in a way that Pinter's play consciously, even meticulously, is not. This brings some rewards: Binoche has an inviting warmth and fragility that makes the play's opening scene heartbreaking to watch; in the birdlike gestures, halting speech and moist eyes she is the picture of a woman who has arrived at the edge of an emotional crisis. When she ends the scene by saying, "It doesn't matter; it's all over," the production hits a note of depth that it rarely matches.
But the very qualities that make Binoche such an appealing stage presence -- the wondrous transparency of her emotions -- are really antithetical to Pinter in general and the play in particular. Binoche brings the play's subtext -- the deep responses hidden beneath the secrets and subterfuge, and masked by the prosaic dialogue -- right to the surface, leaving nothing but shallows underneath. Without the presence of the tension between what is said and what looms behind it, the play seems somewhat underwritten, the characters shallow. And while Binoche speaks English in the proper manner of a French woman long resident in London, she cannot master the meaningful inflections and emphases that are so vital to the effect of Pinter's dialogue.
Although he strikes not a single false note, Slattery is a somewhat too soft and jovial presence; we see his vulnerability all too clearly. The scene in which Robert gets volubly soused at lunch, having just learned of the affair between Emma and Jerry, is the comic highlight of the production. But an element of menace and manipulation, of Robert's furies seething beneath the surface, is missing here and elsewhere.
Indeed, everyone in this love triangle seems so comfortable and friendly that there doesn't seem to be much at stake. Schreiber, who handles the language quite beautifully, is most effective, but of course his character, because of what he doesn't know, is the least emotionally complex.
Pinter pointedly ends the play with a scene that's as fraught with overt emotion as the rest of the play is devoid of it. In the darkness of her bedroom, where Emma has come to fix her makeup, Jerry spills out his anguished confession of love in a torrent of language that's as florid as all that has gone before it is spare. (Howell's costumes, by the way, cleverly increase in color to match the tenor of the romance: In dull gray layers as the play begins, Binoche is in deep red velvet at the final curtain.) The scene should arrive like a thunderclap after the rigorous repression of what has gone before; but in this production, in which not a lot seems to be repressed, it merely plays like another tepid episode in a chronicle more notable for its silken surfaces than its dramatic depths.