Review: USM's production of Pinter's Betrayal

Affairs of memory
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 16, 2010

HALF-TURNED CONVERSATIONS Facing each other can be difficult in Betrayal.

For years, married literary agent Jerry (Sage R. Landry) has conducted a love affair with Emma (Meredith Lamothe), the wife of his best friend, Robert (Patrick Molloy), a book publisher. Their liaison has all the ordinary trappings — the stolen afternoons, the secret rented flat — and its fate — an ending, an ache — is a common. But it's not the end of the affair that's the focus of Betrayal, Harold Pinter's 1978 study of marital and extra-marital relations. In fact, the end is only the launching point for a narrative that moves backward through time, building a subtler suspense: It progresses not toward not love's conclusion, but its origin. Thomas Power directs this challenging and deceptively simple script for the University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre, in a sensitively acted and distinctively staged student production at Russell Hall, in Gorham.

The most striking element of this production is Power's decision to transform the spacious Russell Hall theater into a small black box, and — perhaps even more dramatically — to stage Pinter's obsessive drama in the round. In this almost claustrophobically intimate space, the actors circle one small table in the center, mere feet from any of the four front rows. Power's blocking orients them very consciously around the 360 degrees of the stage, moving them now along an axis, now into each other's quadrants, and thereby heightens their range of interpersonal geometries: Jerry and Emma in their flat, Emma and Robert in a Venice hotel room, Robert and Jerry at lunch, all three of them in Robert and Emma's living room.

Our intense fish-bowl scrutiny of the actors is an affecting analogue for a gaze into memory, and the principals navigate through it and Pinter's dry minimalism with measured, understated intelligence. All three communicate beautifully in least gestures and inflections, humorless laughs over almost before they begin, the subtlest reactions of brow and eye.

As Emma, the lovely Lamothe has an expressive music in her voice, and is reed-like in frame and sensitivity — striding, trembling, or stiff with the effort of cheerful lying, she reveals a wealth of feeling without needing to exhibit it. In Molloy's hands Robert, whose dress is rather breathtakingly foppish (in a '70s kind of way; Renee Garcia is killer on costumes across the board), is tirelessly flat of affect, though his eyes — sometimes searching, sometimes desperate, sometimes amused — show that more goes on beneath. The gaze of Landry's Jerry has a particularly sympathetic depth; he is able to suggest at once profound understanding and an utter, honest lack of it.

Power amplifies the characters' encounters by frequently turning or half-turning them away from each other and holding them there, their gazes unmet or half-met, speaking to each other but away from each other for extended stretches. It's a compelling way to evoke the subjective recall of memory, but at times these tableaux feel a bit too stylized, and held a bit too long. Long moments and pause-rich delivery are indeed common in this production; some exchanges come off almost as if heard underwater. Much of this strategy does great justice to Pinter's economical dialogue, but at times the production settles into a pace and tone that could use a little more dynamism — particularly considering how much swift, sly fun can be had with some of Pinter's pointed lines.

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