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At a table in a London pub, Emma (Caroline Dubberly), the director of an art gallery, is seated with an old friend, Jerry (Matt Dewberry). A quick glance at their clothing—Emma in a trench coat, burgundy blouse, and tan bell-bottom slacks, Jerry in a heavy tweed over his sweater and scarf—tells us it’s the 1970s and that it’s chilly outside. Over drinks, the pair trade smiles and polite inquiries about their spouses, children, and work. Soon the conversation turns to more intimate gossip: Rumor has it that Emma is having an affair with Casey, a novelist whom Jerry, a literary agent, represents. Jerry is less shocked by the infidelity than by the lack of secrecy because until two years ago, he and Emma had maintained an affair for seven years without scandal. Most shockingly to Jerry, Emma and her husband, Robert, his oldest and closest friend, are separating on account of Robert’s own previously unknown infidelities. Jerry is worried about his own exposure.
Later that evening, Jerry is near hysterical when Robert (Jared H. Graham) arrives in his study. Unfazed by the end of his marriage, Robert’s only stated concern is the future arrangement regarding his children. He sees no reason to end their long friendship. When Jerry tries to apologize for his own betrayal, Robert nonchalantly responds that Emma had told him years prior. As the publisher of some of the novelists Jerry represents, Robert would rather discuss books.
Harold Pinter based Betrayal on his own recently ended seven-year affair. (Jerry appears to be Pinter’s stand-in, with one of the writers Jerry represents representing Pinter’s self-critique of the project; Pinter also played Robert in a radio broadcast.) At its 1978 premiere, Betrayal introduced the innovation of non-linear storytelling to naturalistic drama. One scene change may move the story forward days, weeks, or months, the next may skip backward years, ending on the evening in 1968 when Emma and Jerry begin their affair.
It’s become a cliché to talk about the importance of the pause in performing Pinter, but in this 4615 Theatre production at least, it is perhaps more important what an actor does after they finish their line. Director Stevie Zimmerman and her cast understand that when their characters aren’t speaking, they are being spoken to, and so much rests on how they listen, and in the recurring gestural motif of Jerry and Emma’s interwoven fingers. Dubberly, in particular, has stand-out moments when she must pretend to be too absorbed in a novel by a writer whom Jerry represents to express concern that Robert has come across clues to the affair, or in another scene where she silently smiles, betraying the erotic thrill as she imagines her husband and her lover competing in a game of squash, betraying that at least in that one moment, she loves them both and feels no guilt.
Kiana Vincenty’s costumes capture the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in fashion and personal politics they reflect over the nine years the play covers. The three characters are a few years too old and just a bit too bourgeois for the counterculture, but too avant-garde in their own self-regard to dress like the establishment: Robert is a peacock in paisley in 1968 and stylishly aloof in 1977, while Emma seems to be exploring different identities over the years.
Particularly effective is the use of the thrust staging, a feature shared with Enron, which runs in repertory with Betrayal. As the scenes shift from pub to home to flat to hotel, sometimes we find ourselves just over the shoulder of one character, while others might feel they are watching from an objective distance. Yet as one watches Emma, Jerry, and Robert engage in infidelities and self-deceptions, anxiously wondering if they still deserve love and friendship, one catches glimpses of the audience members seated across the alley. Whether or not one watches with a clear conscience, one recognizes that the well rehearsed gestures and line readings are invoking sideways glances, nervous displays of affection, and the squirming realization that by the slightest gesture, one could betray oneself.
To Sept. 8 at 4618 14th St. NW $16.50–$20. 4615theatre.com.