Dating from the late 1970s, Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” exhibits a wide range of one of Pinter’s best known characteristics: ambiguity. There are ambiguous pauses, ambiguous conversations, ambiguous relationships, ambiguous situations. Add to this the size of the cast (three main roles and one bit part), and Pinter’s skill not just at writing dialogue but at analyzing the character traits that might lead to such conversations, and it’s easy to see the attraction of the play for Princeton Summer Theater, which closes its 2006 season with this Pinter drama.
“Betrayal” is known as the play that moves backward. The drama centers around the trio of Robert (Rob Grant), who is married to Emma (Amy Widdowson), and Jerry (Ben Mains), Robert’s best friend and for much of the play Emma’s lover. (Mains is also executive director of the company.) The first scene opens with Emma and Jerry, who are no longer lovers, meeting in a pub. After awkwardly asking after each other over and over again, they begin to reminisce. This opening scene, which takes place in 1977, is actually the last scene chronologically in the course of the relationship. As Emma and Jerry talk about the past, it becomes clear that large elements of what has happened remain unclear to both of them. It is also clear that there have been many betrayals in their joint history, again not all of them known to both former lovers.
The action moves slowly backwards, ending in the last scene of Act II at Robert and Emma’s house in 1968. In between we have been with Emma and Jerry in the flat they rented for their affair, with Robert and Emma on a trip to Venice, and with Robert and Jerry at an Italian restaurant (here’s where Will Ellerbe, who also serves as light and sound designer and master electrician, has his brief moment as the waiter). At the restaurant Robert and Jerry catch up on each other’s lives, or at least as much of them as they’re willing to reveal. Both are in the publishing business, although Robert has apparently not been as successful as Jerry (“I am a bad publisher because I hate books”). Along the way we learn that the title of the play refers to many more betrayals than the central one involving Emma and Jerry.
Toward the beginning of the second act the scene-by-scene backwards movement of the action is temporarily put on hold, and in two cases characters refer to events that happened in the previous scene. By that time, we’re so used to time moving in the wrong direction that our immediate reaction is to assume something’s gone wrong: “But wait, aren’t they talking about something that just happened?”
Andy Hoover directs the show, and he has done an excellent job in making sure the action is clear and motivated. He also attends to the details: for example, there’s a large door that dominates the back wall, but all the exits and entrances seem to take place from the side. Suddenly, at a climactic moment near the end, someone bursts in that unused door.
The three main actors all do a first-rate job of handling Pinter’s lines and his sometimes off-the-wall assumptions about people’s motivation. (The cast even managed to appear unflustered by the bird that flew back and forth across the auditorium at the beginning of the opening night performance.) The stage design, by Nick Benacerraf, is attractive and works well. There are no walls, only the door and furniture — a barstool, a bed, a bureau, and a table — that is removed when no longer needed, changing the stage picture from full at the beginning to almost empty at the end. One does have to wonder, though, what the significance of the three large lights is supposed to be. Hung from the fly space on cables, they are raised at scene changes, in a different order each time, after which comes a blackout and then the next scene. They seem to be making a statement; what that statement was remained unclear. But this is only a minor quibble about an overall strong production.
And what a good choice for PST to have made. For many people the reverse order of events has the effect of making them want to go right back and see the play again to find out how the beginning, which of course is really the end, works now that you know what leads up to it.
Betrayal, Thursday through Saturday, August 10 to August 12, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, August 13, 2 p.m., Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, on the Princeton campus. Harold Pinter’s love story told in reverse of how an affair affects the lives of three friends. $14 to $16. 609-258-7062.