Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Master Harold . . . and the girls

Pinter with TV personality Joan Bakewell in the late 60's; their affair inspired Betrayal.

A few months back I wondered whether Pinter was still "possible" - whether in an age that had absorbed his techniques into an ironic culture of sketch comedy, there was still a way to access the atmosphere of threat his work was once known for.

Well, I'm still wondering that after taking in Another Country's production of Betrayal (at the Boston Center for the Arts through June 5), which does boast a clever concept for its set, but conveys little sense of the play's mood or themes. It's too bad, because the actors all have talent, and perhaps with stronger direction the piece might have cohered into an elegant, if arch, retelling of Pinter's famous account of his own checkered romantic history.

Of course Betrayal is far from the rawest Pinter; instead, it's a late, somewhat lesser play - perhaps the last and least of the major plays, autumnal in mood and less brutal than most (at least superficially). The piece casts a coldly melancholic eye back on the author's betrayal of wife Vivien Merchant with TV personality Joan Bakewell (above, interviewing her lover), with whom he carried on a clandestine affair for several years - so clandestine that many early viewers of Betrayal imagined it was about his later affair with Lady Antonia Fraser, whom Pinter eventually married after divorcing Merchant. Bakewell cleared that up some years ago, although even she wasn't aware that Pinter had fathered a child with another woman while carrying on with her.

So Master Harold was a busy boy in his heyday, and it's obvious now that in his "memory plays" of the 70's he did, indeed, have quite a complex personal topography to mine. Betrayal may be the most accessible of these works, even though, as everyone knows, its narrative moves backward in time - well, it actually hops backward, then goes forward a little bit, then hops backward again, the better to limn the tiny betrayals nested like Russian dolls within the larger arc of its characters' adultery.

And the most striking thing about the current production is designer Dahlia L'Habieli's unit-set solution to the staging problems this structure creates. L'Habieli's conceit is to situate the reverse-engineered story in a kind of conceptual art gallery (appropriate enough to Pinter's literary set) in which hang paintings from the various years of the play's action; in between scenes, gallery personnel enter to shine lights on the various dates attached to the paintings to convey that we're taking another backward quantum leap. Clever, no? I thought so.

If only the acting were at the same level as the design concept, all would be well. But alas, the cast has developed its performances via the "Meisner technique" (it's even announced in the program) which a Pinter play requires about as much as a fish needs a bicycle. The Meisner technique (for those unaware) is the source of the catch-phrase "in the moment," and emphasizes spontaneity and a highly attentive, almost improvisatory, performance style between actors rather than the development of interior landscapes; it's great for work without a complex subtext. But of course Pinter depends on subtext, on actors negotiating not only each other but their own subterfuges, wounds, and hidden agendas; it's inward as well as outward. Indeed, Betrayal is basically structured as a slow reveal of a complicated inner history; if that history isn't worked out, the play doesn't really happen.

And here it doesn't really happen; indeed, even its poignant bottom-line arc, from weary disillusionment to headily naïve passion, is only fitfully in view. As Pinter-factotum Jerry, actor Robert Kropf most often seems aware of what he should be doing long-term, as it were; but even he changes far too little over the course of the play, and too often gropes for "fresh" moments, opting for spontaneity over stealth. As the object of his adulterous affection, Lyralen Kaye (at left, with Kropf) sports an intriguingly camouflaged presence that might be right for Pinter - but she keeps things so low-key that we never feel there's really any blood on the floor. Likewise Wayne Fritsche is far too meek and arch as cuckolded husband Robert; there's a cruel, even nasty streak in this character that Fritsche seems unable to convey. He's better at playing regrets - the one scene that mostly clicks is his sad discovery of his wife's infidelity in the script's famous "Torcello" interlude. Meanwhile director Gail Phaneuf pours on the dolor with an inappropriate emo soundtrack. But Betrayal might be better played more in anger than in sorrow.