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Retreat to Square One

The "Director's Note" in the program I received last Friday at Palm Beach Dramaworks revives the old line about Harold Pinter's plays being "comedies of menace." As near as I can tell, this means allowing glimpses of little, mundane moments to reveal the dread and horror that lives beneath life's bright facades, even in the most intimate settings. It's a cool idea, and Pinter productions often bring it off beautifully. So it's with some uneasiness that I tell you my favorite thing about Dramaworks' current production of Pinter's Betrayal is how very non-menacing it is.

Betrayal is the story of a love affair between two married people, Emma and Jerry, that stretches from 1968 to 1975. Emma's husband is a fellow named Robert, who also happens to be Jerry's best and oldest friend. Both Robert and Jerry are involved in the publishing world, and one is tempted to grasp for the play's theme in their constant literary references — Robert reads Yeats alone on Torcello, where Hemingway wrote Across The River and Into The Trees; Jerry reads Yeats with his family in the Lake District, once the home of Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. These pointed references could lead industrious American audiences on a bit of a wild goose chase, which would be a particularly imprudent detour. The learned English, who first saw Betrayal in 1978, took such throwaways as wallpaper.

But the temptation is there, because so much of Betrayal — especially in this production — is spent waiting for a theme to develop. I say "especially in this production," because of how slowly director J. Barry Lewis has allowed his scenes to unfold. English drama of this sort is almost always done quickly; lines are delivered with a snap, cut short. Characters' dialogue overlaps in great torrents. Although Pinter's plays are not necessarily more fast-moving than other English dramatists' work, Lewis has placed his actors under a microscope. In private, trying to untangle the complexities of their relationships, they speak tentatively, groping for an elusive something to bridge the gaps between them. Words precede elephantine pauses; in the ensuing silence, they begin to sound like portents.

Portents of what? Betrayal is one of the original examples of "reverse chronology," the backwards telling of a story. Beginning in a pub in 1977, two years after the dreary dissolution of Emma and Jerry's love affair, the play presents us with the culmination; it is then up to the audience to anticipate the causes. One watches and wonders at the roots of the characters' bad behaviors and fixations. Some are revealed, some are not. By the time the play wends itself, 90 minutes later, toward the first kiss of Emma and Jerry's affair, we know exactly enough to pity these people and the desolate fate that awaits them. But we are not so aware that we feel superior. The combined knowledge of fate's simultaneous immutability and mysteriousness creates a hollow feeling in the gut. We have seen portents not of outcomes, but of origins.

The whole construct formally hints that life is some kind of machine in which gears are in motion, a mechanism from which a very specific product will issue. God may know the outcomes, as might people watching behind an invisible Fourth Wall. Individuals, on the other hand, are doomed to suffer the consequences of their actions. That doom is plastered all over the faces of Dramaworks' actors at the play's beginning, and it comes off in increments, transferring entirely to the audience by play's end, when the actors are carefree and it is everyone else who must bear the burden of knowledge.

It's Margery Lowe's Emma who first sheds the doom. Watch how she does it: At the start she is simply a crimson lady, an adulterer who has received her comeuppance. But the easiness with which she pursues love as the play slips backward in time, the way she maintains her hope until the last possible instant, is irrefutable evidence of innocence. Even when her accent falters (which is often; she has a much tougher time sounding like a smart English lady than she does like a daft southerner, as she recently did in Steel Magnolias), her timbre is bright and quickly infused with a hope that would be charming in life but is disturbing in this context, where we all know exactly what that hope is worth and what it will get her.

The other two principles see it coming long before she does. Todd Allen Durkin, as the lust-crazy lover Jerry, is still in possession of the same wild restlessness that was on display last December in David Wiltse's Hatchetman, at Florida Stage. In that play, his constant anxiety was born of fear for his job, and it was funny. In Betrayal, he fears for his entire social, romantic and emotional life. And though his portrayal is shot through with moments of humor — he's too scatter-brained and perpetually shell-shocked not to elicit the occasional chuckle — he is continually aware of the high stakes he's playing for, and he never lets us forget them, either.

Lowe and Durkin are exceptional, but it's Michael St. Pierre's portrayal of Robert that sets the emotional tone of the performance. Caught between his love of his wife, his love of his friend, and his knowledge of their simultaneous betrayals, he has feelings that are immediately defeated by their own counters. He is full of love and hate, bitterness and sadness, disgust for people and a desperate, yawning need for them. He is caught between his twin allegiances in precisely the same way that Betrayal's drama is caught between the destined future and the mysterious-but-immutable past, and whatever it is that Pinter's play still has to say is probably said by him, in one of those elephantine silences that stretches out as he tries to summon up the words to explain himself.

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Brandon K. Thorp