Juliette Binoche Beguiles in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

There are three very good reasons to rush to see the new production of Harold Pinter’s 1978 Betrayal at the American Airlines Theatre–Juliette Binoche, Juliette Binoche and Juliette Binoche! No disrespect to her co-stars Liev Schreiber and John Slattery, but that is the way love goes.

Ms. Binoche, who surely enchanted us all in The English Patient , is making an extraordinary Broadway debut in David Leveaux’s fine production for the Roundabout. She uncannily possesses the same magnetic qualities onstage that she does on film. As Emma, the solidly middle-class English woman who betrays her husband, Robert, by having a seven-year affair with his best friend, she’s the beguiling gravitational center of every scene in which she appears.

Ms. Binoche is lovely, of course. But her femininity possesses depth and unpredictable qualities. You cannot be certain what she will do next–an ideal for any actor, but perfect for Mr. Pinter’s mercurial heroine, who must change emotionally with every scene. Ms. Binoche plays every note with innate ease–from romantic desolation to fragile, giddy happiness to the unspoken little murders of marital lies. But if we remind ourselves that English is her second language, her achievement is the more stunning.

In a sense, she’s speaking two foreign languages–English and Harold Pinter. This has never been a simple business for any actor, except, of course, the English–the traditionally understated, dryly ambiguous, “Pinteresque” English. Ms. Binoche has, firstly, mastered the language by refusing to be “Pinteresque”! She isn’t tempted into the traditional traps of playing Pinter–the weighty pauses, the mysterious silences and blind alleys, the dramatic nervous tics of loudly stating the unsaid .

Harold Pinter’s Betrayal famously begins at the end and stops seven years earlier at the beginning. The play came at the peak of Mr. Pinter’s achievements in the 1970’s, which included Old Times and No Man’s Land . Some have found Betrayal a mannerist example of the bourgeois evasion masquerading as mystery, a shallow drama about affluent Londoners. (Robert’s a wealthy publisher who doesn’t like books; Jerry’s a literary agent). The details are nice and middlebrow chic–Venice, Torcello, the Lake District, Yeats, Italian restaurants. But the play itself–the lying center of it–is much more than a gimmicky confection.

It’s reveling in a game of double ambiguity. On the one hand, the reticent, ambiguous Englishness of the piece is a given. On the other, it’s doubly ambiguous because everyone is lying. Who might be telling the truth in any given scene is part of Mr. Pinter’s serious game, and playing it backward adds to the intrigue. The perspective is flipped out, a bit arch and very unsentimental. Mr. Pinter is less interested in the exciting, near-invulnerable highs of the illicit affair. He’s after the breakdown of love, its inevitable fading. He is saying to us from the desolated outset, when the two ex-lovers meet again in a pub: It ain’t going to work out.

Then again, four or five betrayals are better than one. The husband’s had affairs for years; Emma has betrayed him; and her ex-lover has betrayed her husband as well as his own wife, who might be having a little fling herself. (Who would blame her?) Mr. Pinter’s universe is calculated and unapologetically amoral. It’s scarily easy to betray. Betrayal is normal.

“You know what I found out last night,” Emma says indignantly about her husband, Robert, in that opening scene. “He’s betrayed me for years.”

“No,” says her ex-lover, Jerry. “Good lord.”

Evasions are normal, too. But the comic implications of the play are unusual. Betrayal, after all, is no laughing matter. But the production gets the deadpan delivery right. Director Leveaux–who did such sparkling work with the recent revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing –is a first-rate interpreter of Pinter’s work. (He also directed the 1993 Moonlight and No Man’s Land .) In Betrayal , he combines a spare, elegant expressionism with its apparent opposite–the concrete, the real. The love affair between Emma and Jerry, now lost in shadowy time, was real once. But the director understands that comedy is the unlikely source of even Mr. Pinter’s most menacing dramas. His theater roots were vaudevillian. (He used to write comedy sketches.) Liev Schreiber’s Jerry and John Slattery’s Robert are therefore like a comedy team in dangerous denial.

“Read any good books lately?”

“I’ve been reading Yeats.”

“Ah, Yeats. Yes.”

Robert, the empty, dangerous man, has known for years that Jerry’s having an affair with his wife. Yet they remain apparent friends–keeping up appearances, playing the English game. (“Ah, Yeats. Yes.”) Language disguises the emotion. Words in their dry reticence might suggest a struggle for power, like the manly game of squash . Besides, they like each other. “I’ve always liked Jerry,” Robert tells his wife. “To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. I should have had an affair with him myself.”

Would that Liev Schreiber as Emma’s married lover truly understood that the secret of playing Mr. Pinter resides in utterly relaxed naturalness. Accomplished actor though Mr. Schreiber is, he tends to play the subtext too much. He acts the ambiguous language of silence a little too loudly. I didn’t sense demons in him, nor the charmer in romantic turmoil. John Slattery’s Jerry, on the other hand, could be more coiled, more suggestively reptilian perhaps. He rushes his drunk scene, suggesting hollow desperation powerfully, less so the killer within the killer.

This is a rewarding night at the theater just the same. I must note that the refined design and lighting are by Rob Howell and David Weiner. If you find that you miss the more blatant, messy dirt and lunatic rush of betrayers in love–remember, this is England. Apparent control is the name of Mr. Pinter’s understated game. When Juliette Binoche is playing it, it’s something to see, and fall for. As I think I may possibly have suggested, she’s got it all.