Monday, November 19, 2012

Keeping faith with Pinter

Gretchen Egolf and Alan Cox in Betrayal.  Photos: T. Charles Erickson.

A year or two ago, after several failed Pinter productions at the ART and elsewhere, I wondered aloud, "Is Pinter still possible?"  It seemed to me then that pop culture's absorption of this playwright's menacing comic tone had fatally undermined his dramatic impact - or rather, had swallowed up his acid irony in the new, glib, millennial mode of "irony."

Since then, however, I've seen one or two productions (all by women) which have demonstrated that the famous Pinter pause can still conjure something of its old power - just in a new, more poignant key; and that the playwright's disturbing ellipses can still unsettle even a millennial audience that is quite sure it has all the answers.  In short, the chill may be gone, but the thrill can still be there.

Or at least that's what fascinates about the new Huntington production of Betrayal, as subtly directed by Maria Aitken.  It's probably the warmest piece of Pinter I've ever seen; and yet it delivers in spades on the playwright's questing, unstable subtext.  Indeed, for once, during it the Huntington audience was clearly at sea - in a good way: you could feel them trying to piece something together that wasn't at all what it appeared to be on the surface.  Thus the theatre grew more and more quiet as the drama progressed (or rather regressed; it mostly moves backward in time) - only this was the silence of mental absorption, not boredom.  It has been said that art is supposed to be about questions, not answers; it was nice to see the Huntington had realized this concern lies at the very heart of Pinter.

A word more about Aitken; we've seen a lot of her work at the Huntington - and I'm quite, quite glad.  After a false start with the clever but superficial 39 Steps, she revealed sudden interpretive depths with Educating Rita (of all things), and since then has only gone from strength to strength with two more British dramas (a wonderful Private Lives preceded Betrayal).  Three stylish, fully imagined productions in a row - there may be no other Boston director who can currently make that claim.

But I want to note something special about Aitken and her oeuvre - it has mostly been composed of works with lead roles she has already performed herself (in a distinguished acting career), or by authors with whom she has had a working relationship (like Pinter).  There's nothing at all wrong with this - indeed, it's a type of directorial career I very much admire (the great Brian Bedford, up in Canada, has had a similar artistic trajectory).  I call these folks legacy directors - they clearly mean to hand the torch on to the next generation, while the academy (which should be doing that job, of course) fusses with this or that -ism or trend. Would there were more like Ms. Aitken!

The betrayers of Betrayal - Pinter and Joan Bakewell.
Which isn't to say that her Betrayal doesn't have an intriguing and original spin.  As I mentioned, it's far warmer than most; it's clearly sourced from within the experience of its female protagonist, "Emma" (here played by the luminous Gretchen Egolf).  This is in and of itself actually remarkable, as Pinter-land has long been assumed to be a masculine province.  But Pinter's no Mamet: great female roles exist in his work, and now Aitken has demonstrated that Betrayal (along with, I'd argue, Old Times and The Homecoming) is open to a fresh, feminine perspective.

The tale the playwright tells, of course, is one he knows from experience: Betrayal delineates one of the adulteries (with Joan Bakewell, interviewing the author above left, during their long relationship) that he was notorious for during his marriage to the actress Vivien Merchant - who, we seem to have forgotten, did not actually survive her husband's infidelities: after her divorce from Pinter she sank into alcoholism, and was dead within two years, at age 53 (their son, Daniel, disavowed his father and even changed his name after his mother's death; you can still see the wonderful Merchant, btw, in the film version of The Homecoming, and Hitchcock's Frenzy).

But Betrayal was written during the emergence of another Pinter affair (with Lady Antonia Fraser, whom he eventually married), the one that "officially" broke up his marriage, and became "permanent."  Thus it's quite apropos that broken dreams of domesticity and commitment - the ghost of what Joan Bakewell might have been, if you will - should haunt the play; although the sturdy and very successful Ms. Bakewell is still very much with us, in case you're wondering, and seems to have been hardly crushed by the collapse of this particular romance -indeed, she has even consulted on productions of the script, as you can read here.

The betrayals mount in Betrayal - Gretchen Egolf and Mark H. Dold

So the ruefulness and emotional wreckage that Betrayal charts are probably Pinter's, and not his paramour's.  No matter; Ms. Egolf eloquently channels the devastation (whoever experienced it in real life) as the various betrayals - of love, of friendship, even of adultery itself - are revealed in Pinter's haunting, back-and-forth narrative. And she's almost matched by Mark H. Dold as her cuckolded (but himself unfaithful) husband, "Robert"; Dold has the right hawk-like demeanor for the part, and hints, particularly in the famous "Torcello" scene (above), at a ruthlessly suppressed tragic depth.  My one caveat about his performance - and perhaps about the production generally - is that the edge of cruelty I feel Pinter intends for Robert is never quite made forceful enough (he "jokes" in one scene about actually striking his wife, and we should feel somehow that's no joke).

Perhaps a small step further behind is Alan Cox's adulterous "Jerry"(who betrays not only his wife but his best friend), even though Cox is experienced at Pinter; but even his is a skillful, if perhaps too light, performance, and closes with a memorable outburst of true feeling and affection - which we realize, in a brilliant coup de théâtre conjured by Aitken and designer Allen Moyer - will prove the font of all the heartbreak to follow.  But then that may be what is most mature about this late Pinter opus (the last - and frankly perhaps the least - of his "great" plays): its adult awareness of the way in which the better and lesser angels of our nature often fly hand-in-hand.

One last note on the striking design of the production (this is a play which is quite a challenge in design terms, btw).  The Huntington's stellar sets have actually become, in some circles, almost a kind of aesthetic albatross flapping around its neck (as in "Oh, of course the set was wonderful, they always do incredible sets at the Huntington, but as for the production itself . . . ").  But Mr. Moyer's design is one example of a set that does not merely dazzle, but works as metaphor for both the themes and history of the play.  A lynchpin of Pinter's technique is the telling detail (even if it's merely a sudden silence), and its relation to an unstable, or unknowable, power struggle, or past life; thus at the Huntington, scenes end with scrims "closing down," like the iris of a lens, on a single facet of the set - and the settings themselves float in a kind of pale studio, a twilight zone whose true nature and location remains forever unknown (and which inevitably recalls the television studios where Bakewell and Pinter first met).  Frankly these brilliant strokes, like so much else in this remarkable production, seem absolutely perfect for Pinter.

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