There's a lot going on in the first scene of Harold Pinter's 1979 Olivier Award winner for Best New Play. It seems, at first blush, like two stuffy Brits chatting over a drink. But as anyone familiar with Betrayal knows, we're seeing the end of something: a reconciliation of sorts, years after the end of the torrid affair through which the remainder of the play will take us in reverse.
On the night I catch Filigree Theatre's production at the Santa Cruz Center (the company's debut in Austin), there's a lot going on in the first scene that shouldn't be – most of it out of the actors' hands: a line bobble here and there, a lighting instrument problem (fixed at intermission), a couple of latecomers knocking mid-scene on the "front door" of the building (actually downstage left of the set), and an audience not quite sure yet if Pinter is a playwright at whose words you're allowed to laugh, causing some pacing issues from the get-go.
I do love an underdog, though. Once the engine is warmed up and the kinks worked out, director Elizabeth V. Newman's studied and steady cast delivers a solid performance, exploring the toll on the human psyche born of illicit choices.
David Moxham plays Jerry, a London literary agent engaged in an affair with his best friend's wife. Moxham brings a nervous energy to the character – Jerry's neediness is downplayed in favor of an unearned smugness at the cuckolding to which he is party. It's a bold choice, and Newman is right to have her actor explore it, as it changes the landscape of the play in a compelling way. As Emma, gallery owner and other half of the longtime tryst, Emily Rankin is quiet but pointed; an aura of crisp dignity surrounds her as she negotiates her feelings in a refined manner. There's an agency to this Emma not often found. And as Emma's publisher husband Robert, J. Kevin Smith is the epitome of "stiff upper lip," dutifully composed even in his discovery of his friend and wife's ... er, betrayal. Felix Alonzo also provides welcome comic relief to an otherwise tense scene as a waiter just a pratfall shy of slapstick.
The dialect work is near flawless, and it speaks volumes to coach Bernadette Nason's work that, although I'd skimmed the program and read that one of the two main male actors was a genuine Brit, I couldn't remember which it was. (Spoiler alert: It's Moxham.)
The set and props were designed by Newman and producer Stephanie Moore, to mostly wonderful effect. The set is wide and open, making great use of space, with nearly every scene pre-set at once, frenetically shifting with lighting changes to create self-contained moments onstage, clearly defined as their own worlds. The back wall is an impressive collage of pages, illustrations, and columns of books, surrounding the characters in a world of language so well-used by the playwright. When a set change must occur, however, they run a bit long and drag the momentum down, though we are treated to some lovely period-appropriate tunes in the interval.
Perfected "Pinter pauses" and all, Newman and her cast take a well-known script, often derided for its problematic misogyny and cavalier attitude toward spousal abuse (a particular line is addressed in the program), and show us a side of adultery we may not often consider. Are we in control of who we love, and are we even conscious of it? And in the end, toward for whom is the betrayal most bitter: our partners or ourselves?
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.