ILLICIT LOVERS Stone and Gentsch. [Photo by Kevin Broccoli]
Although prolific British playwright Harold Pinter directed much of his professional attention to the outer world of political affairs, he focused it most narrowly in a little play about more intimate affairs. Betrayal charts the gradual emotional changes of three people as they go through their dances of deception over several years. Epic Theatre Co. is staging it at the Hope Artiste Village (999 Main St, Pawtucket, through May 4).
They are the cuckold Robert (Chris Conte), British but amiable rather than stuffy; his American wife, Emma (Melanie Stone); and Jerry (Mark Gentsch), also American and his best friend. Robert is a publisher of literary works and Jerry is an agent with a skill for discovering up-and-coming talent, so their relationship has a layer of mutual professional respect. Emma owns and operates an art gallery, so her sophistication is also credentialed.
Scenes unfold in reverse chronological order, for the most part. The structure allows Pinter to build a modicum of suspense in what otherwise would have been a rather anti-climactic sequence. After all, opening with the start of an affair and concluding with a casual meeting years after it ended would be predictable. But using their first lustful eye-lock as the climax, so to speak, makes it the cherry atop the guilty pleasure scandal sundae we've been enjoying.
All the exchanges are packed into nine economical scenes in a play that lasts a little over an hour.
Things start out in the present-day, as Jerry and Emma are casually meeting in a London pub, two years after their affair ended. There is no hint of retrospective guilt, except for one tangential question: "She doesn't know about us?" Jerry asks about her daughter, soon relieved that the answer is no. This combines with their recollecting him tossing that daughter in the air as we also enjoy her implied squeals of delight. Innocence appreciated; collateral damage avoided.
In that opening scene, Emma reveals that she will probably separate from Robert because he has "betrayed me for years." Her anger is a nice touch not only for her ironic double standard but also because what infuriates Jerry is that his best friend had never shared the infidelity with him. His objection is compounded by her admitting to another betrayal: the evening before, when Robert told her about his affairs, she told him about her prior seven-year fling with Jerry.
Curious dynamic with these three. Later that day at Jerry's apartment, Robert is remarkably casual about his friend's apology. And that's not because the infidelity was brief or meaningless, since Jerry acknowledges that he "lived with her" for seven years of afternoons, a parallel life with those seven years of marital evenings. Robert laughs it all off, apparently from bemusement rather than bravado. "You don't seem to understand that I don't give a shit about any of this," Robert tells his rival.
He also finds it amusing that Emma told Jerry she confessed to the affair the night before since, as he tells Jerry, she actually owned up to it four years earlier. The spin-off lies and deceptions are accumulating.