Betrayal, which premiered in 1978, is Nobel laureate Harold Pinter's most straightforward and also his most straight-backward play. "Our beginnings never know our ends," Pinter opined in connection with The Homecoming. But it was not until Betrayal, which is being revived by the Huntington Theatre Company (at the BU Theatre through December 9), that the elusive dramatist told a tale that unfolded from end to beginning. The work ostensibly chronicles a longtime extramarital affair from strained aftermath to mid-wither to full bloom to polluted inception, each scene betraying, among other treasons, the characters' memories of what had gone before. Which is the point. Pinter is not so much running a soap-opera tape backward as examining, as he does more cryptically in Old Times and No Man's Land, the rocky, unreliable surface of recollection.
"Harold's memory is not linear at all," remarked Lady Antonia Fraser (the second Mrs. Pinter) of her husband. "He's got a memory like a camera, as if he's taking shots." That observation would seem to have been the inspiration for Maria Aitken's wistful period staging for the Huntington, in which the scenes expand and then retract as if seen through the shutter of an old-fashioned camera. And the wide, stark jumble of the production's final image suggests not just that all memory is illusion but that the shifting sands of power and duplicity scattered among the previous scenes were underfoot from the beginning.
This is not the warmest production in memory of what is arguably Pinter's most accessible if still stylized work. But it is both delicate and perceptive. One of the play's ironies is that usurping other man Jerry, played here with rumpled panache and the right English rhythms by Alan Cox, is its most humane character, with the grace to know — if not be terribly bothered by — guilt. On the other hand, wronged husband Robert (an aptly razor-edged Mark H. Dold), armed as he is with a mean, shrewd bonhomie, often seems to be running the show of his own cuckolding. Emma, these two literary chums' shared mate, as embodied by willowy Gretchen Egolf folded into a telling regression of period garb, is by turns icy, vulnerable, and needlessly dishonest. Betrayal is by no means Pinter's greatest work, but it is in its way perfect, and the Huntington team proves adequately perfectionist.
BETRAYAL :: Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston :: Through December 9 :: $15-$75 :: 617.266.7900 or huntingtontheatre.org