We don't see much Pinter on Austin stages. For a playwright whose membership in the 20th century canon is so firmly established, Austin companies have been rather shy about producing his work – aside from a lone 2009 production of The Collection from Hyde Park Theatre, one has to have a pretty strong recall to remember the last time a full production of the Nobel Prize laureate's work appeared on a local stage. So the very fact that audiences have the chance to see a production of Betrayal, one of the English playwright's finest works, is noteworthy on its own.
In this Chaotic Theatre production, the setting is moved from London to the U.S., and the costuming choices suggest that it's no longer set so strictly in the Seventies, as Pinter intended. It remains, of course, as aptly titled as ever. The play deals with the series of betrayals that occur throughout the course of a seven-year affair between Emma (Carrie Stephens) – the wife of Robert (Andrew Black, who also directs), a New York-based publisher – and Jerry (Samuel Grimes), Robert's best friend. Told through a series of vignettes that move in reverse chronological order, we see the precise ways in which all three parties betray one another – through lies, conspiracies, and omissions.
In many ways, those things make Betrayal a hard script to screw up. As long as the lies and omissions reveal themselves in the subtle ways that Pinter wrote them, most productions will deliver on the richness of the material. Chaotic's take on the script is no exception to that, but it also frequently fails to take advantage of some of the opportunities presented by the play. While Stephens is excellent as Emma – she wears the weight of her secrets throughout every scene, regardless of whether she's scared, delighted, tired, or sad – and Grimes' Jerry does a fine job balancing naïveté with charm, Black struggles as the third in their love triangle. His performance is frequently stilted. He plays Robert as neither affable, vulnerable, nor menacing, relying instead on performative tricks – a raised voice, an affected tone – to convey what's written to be subtle revelations. The missed opportunities are frustrating; a scene early in the second act, when Robert confronts Emma with his knowledge of the affair, remains static and one-note. He continues to raise his voice at her, even as the power dynamic between them subtly shifts once he begins asking her for details – flattening a scene that's written to be extremely tense.
What we get instead of that sort of tension is an opportunity to see Betrayal in a raw form. The subtleties are frequently rolled over, but the stage is well dressed, the costumes fit well, and the script remains intact and affecting. Given how long it may be before we see Betrayal again on an Austin stage, that'll have to be enough.
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