North Coast Repertory Theatre often presents high quality productions, but they do seem to have a particular affinity for farce and for the plays of Harold Pinter. The latter affinity is currently on display with Pinter’s Betrayal, running through June 28.
Betrayal tells the story of a woman who has a long-term affair with her husband’s best friend. The affair runs from 1968-1977, and the substantial risk that Mr. Pinter took in the play’s writing was to tell the story in reverse chronological order (though, a couple of scenes move forward in time – don’t worry, everything is well-marked). Especially tricky is starting with scenes that depict the affair running its course, working back through happy though furtive days when both of the lovers had to keep the affair hidden, particularly from the husband/best friend, and finishing with the affair’s rather coarse beginning.
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth ran aground trying to adapt Merrily We Roll Along, a Depression-era play with a similar backward structure, into a musical. Audiences often have trouble dealing with watching a story that starts at the nadir of its arc. And, how much information to introduce about events that happened in the past but which the audience will see later is problematic.
Mr. Pinter solves this problem with humor, irony, and by avoiding a narrative arc that progressively becomes more and more optimistic. At the beginning of the play, when Emma (Carla Harting) and Jerry (Jeffrey Fracé) meet for lunch after their affair is over, the worst that happens is that they have very little to say to one another. By the time the play ends and as the affair begins, the two have more to say but what they say sounds far less sincere.
In between lies a tale of lovers who work at being married with children, as well as maintaining a best friends relationship with the man (Richard Baird) being betrayed. Of course, that man is not a total innocent, which serves to keep things interesting – and often quite funny.
I should add that Betrayal comes from the same period as Mr. Pinter’s adaptation for film of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” The work on that adaptation is equally fine, and if you’ve never seen the film (or if, like me you remember it fondly), the play and the film would go together well.
Seattle-based director Frank Corrado is a Pinter specialist, and he leads a sterling cast that not only “gets” this play but also “gets” how to perform it – in particular, how to put life into the silences that are an essential part of Mr. Pinter’s work.
The North Coast Rep creative staff responds to the challenge as well. Resident Scenic Designer Marty Brunett has provided a turntable and a set of sliding panels that allows the numerous scene changes to rotate into position. Matt Novotny lights the various scenes expertly, while Alina Bokovikova provides handsome costumes that remain fashionable no matter what the date of the scene. Melanie Chen has done an excellent job of selecting music to play during the scene changes, giving audience members a background for processing what just occurred and anticipating what might lie ahead. Properties designer Benjamin Cole not only keeps those scene changes running smoothly but contributes a humorous cameo in one of the scenes.
Thoughtful direction, well-considered design elements, and superb ensemble acting make North Coast Rep’s Betrayal a must-see.