Sunday, March 01, 2009

A Pint of Pinter

Betrayal by Harold Pinter, directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Repertory Theater, Through March 22, 2009

It is 1981 and I am sitting in the audience of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, housed in one of Carnegie's old libraries on the North Side. I am with the woman who will a year and a half in the future become the Lovely Bride. I am living in a carriage house in Shadyside with a friend and working as a civil engineer for a company making structures for air pollution equipment. Harold Pinter has written the script for the new film that has just come out, The French Lieutenant's Woman.

And it is 2008 and I am sitting in the audience of the Seattle Rep, next to the Lovely Bride. And I am living in a nice house near Panther Lake and building fantasy worlds for a living. Harold Pinter, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has been dead these past two months.

That's my time travel story. It's not much, I know, but I think I've weathered the past 27 years better than the play. (The LB, for her part, denies that she was at the play my 1981 timespace version, but I can think of no other valid reason for me to go a Pinter play in 1981).

The play itself travels through time in a nonstandard fashion, told in reverse, an artifice that has made it all the way down to "Seinfeld" in the intervening years, but in the 70s? New hot stuff. Also hot were the bubbling volcano of resentments within the characters that filled the pauses and silences of conversation with fire and resentment. And that the play was all about the unspoken bits. And martial infidelity. All the hypocrisy of all that British reserve. All very hot stuff for my 1980's self, but now feels as dated as a powder blue leisure suit.

Emma (Cheyenne Casebier) and Robert (Alex Podulke) are married. Emma and Jerry (David Christopher Wells), Robert's best friend, carry on a seven year affair. Two years after the end of the affair, Emma tells Jerry that Robert knows about the affair. Robert tells Jerry that he knew about the affair for years. Jerry is upset by the revelations, and we start tripping backwards to see how we got here.

So Emma and Jerry betray Robert with their affair. Emma betrays Jerry by admitting the affair to Robert. Robert betrays Jerry by not telling him he knew about affair, which leaves Jerry at the end of the timeline/beginning of the play distraught, not about losing Emma (who has, since the affair's breakup, moved onto other interests and other men), but because Robert's glacial calm shows he has been playing his best friend for a fool.

And that's about it. Jerry is shallow and a cad, living in the moment, aided by his own unreliable memory. Robert stuffs his rage inside, so that his moment, when the infidelity is revealed, is met with a stiff upper lip instead of an explosion. Holding it all together is Emma's character, who is the one who is revealed to have grown from the experience. Cheyenne Casebier, having been a maniacal Milady in "The Three Musketeers", reigns in beautifully as she makes the trip from her older self to her younger persona. She visibly and emotionally changes - the two men, not so much.

Emma feels the most real of the three, though part of that may be nature of the part in addition to the power of the actress. Robert and Jerry come off a wasps trapped in mid-seventies amber, emotions hidden, scandals revealed. But all three actors must walk the very fine line of a world transformed in the past 30 years, where quick British wit gives way to punchlines, and Pinteresque pauses threatens to pitch into Pythonesque parody.

The set is simple, and should have stayed that way - two walls, two windows, and a door. The projected grainy home movie against the rear wall was unneeded save to fill space between prop changes, and the rear wall advancing on the audience (Ah! The walls truly ARE closing in!) just drains more of the life out of the first/last scene.

And yeah, the first temporal/last presented scene felt undercut (again, I'm going to fault the play, not the presentation). This should have been the punchline, yet it resolves with a cold closing to match the cold opening of the start of the play. There is a uniformity of tone within, as if the Britishness has starched all the flexibility out of it.

Back to my personal time travel. I remember thinking in 1981 - did I miss something? I was new to the playgoing experience on a regular basis, so maybe there was something here I didn't catch - Was it just too subtle for me?

It wasn't and I didn't. It is at its heart an empty experience wrapped about a catchy bit of artistic effect. Great for its time, and worth presenting, but like its male characters, ultimately trapped in amber.

More later,