Hard Times: Star-Studded Revival of Harold Pinter’s Bleak Betrayal Is a Mixed Blessing

Mary-Louise Parker, dismally miscast in 'The Snow Geese,' should stick to TV

Daniel Craig as Robert and Rachel Weisz as Emma in Betrayal. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Daniel Craig as Robert and Rachel Weisz as Emma in Betrayal. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Articulate talk, sophisticated emotions and intelligent restraint are rare commodities in short supply these days. Mike Nichols’s elegant revival of Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal enhances all three virtues. I’m surprised to admit this, because, when the play opened originally on Broadway, in January 1980, I considered it preposterously arch, despite a trio of sterling performances by Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner and Raul Julia. A less enthralling production, mounted in 2000, featured the New York debut of the French film star Juliette Binoche but was otherwise nothing to write home about. The current version, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, starring Daniel Craig, the movie heartthrob best known as James Bond, his real-life wife, Rachel Weisz, and newcomer Rafe Spall, is something of a mixed blessing. Mr. Nichols knows what to do with Pinter’s famous spaces, pauses and minimalism, but as a wealthy, successful London publisher, Mr. Craig’s long hair and protruding pecs do not convince. (When does he have time to discover authors and publish their books if he appears to spend all of his time at the gym working out and playing squash?) Still, he’s a star, and there’s box-office gold in marquee names.

The play is about adultery, a theme that never goes out of fashion. It is also about drinking. It begins with alcohol and ends with alcohol, and Mr. Pinter even wrote in the stage directions where the various bottles of vodka, scotch and wine are to be placed in each scene. It works. I remained thirsty from beginning to end, in 90 minutes of playing time without intermission. Mr. Nichols keeps the actors loaded, even when they are saying everything except what they are actually feeling. The title refers to a betrayal of art, life, love, one’s self and one another.

One of the things I used to hate about Betrayal was the fact that it was written backward. This conceit didn’t work onstage for me, but it had an oddly realistic impact in the movie version. Mr. Nichols is astute enough to make it work here, too. You may think it odd to see an entire play starting with the end and working its way back to the beginning, but that’s the way we see life, from an experienced view. The time warp works at last. In the first of nine scenes, Emma (Ms. Weisz) and Jerry (Mr. Spall), a couple who once had an affair for seven years but have not seen each other for a very long time, meet for a drink in a pub. They make formal polite talk about each other’s spouses and children. Emma is on the verge of separating from her husband, Robert. “He’s been betraying me for years,” she says. He counters with, “But we betrayed him.” And the mood is set for a play about betrayal. It begins where most marriages (or love affairs) end—then travels in reverse, until the last scene in the play is really the first scene in anyone else’s film. The viewer must adjust his own sense of dramatic proportion, then work his way into the stubborn structure the play imposes. Betrayal demands a commitment, but, once you get over the jet lag, the results are rewarding.

The play is about three people—Emma, Jerry and Robert (Mr. Craig). Robert is married to Emma. Jerry, a literary agent, is having an affair with Emma, who runs an art gallery. Robert and Jerry have been best friends for years. Robert knows what’s going on. Jerry doesn’t think Robert knows what’s going on. Emma knows that Robert knows. Emma hasn’t told Jerry that Robert knows. Robert, meanwhile, has been betraying them both with someone else. It takes nearly 10 years to reveal all.

We know this, because the play begins in 1977 and ends in 1968. Scene follows scene, shifting from pubs and restaurants to the rented love nest, where Emma and Jerry stage their trysts, to the lavish flat where Emma and Robert live to the Venice vacation where Robert finds out Emma has betrayed him. The affair fades in the mid-’70s. The marriage ends in 1977. But in the last scene before the final blackout, it is 1968, and Jerry declares his passion at a Christmas party. Great promise lies ahead. But we have already learned, from eight previous scenes, that a betrayal isn’t much fun if everyone knows about it.

To the detriment of the play, which Pinter based on an actual seven-year affair he had with a married woman, none of the characters seem to like each other very much.

Frankly, they are all rude, disagreeable, self-involved and cold as salmon. Nor do they seem to have much class. Mr. Craig plays Robert like a bloke you’d meet in a tavern for a pint. But under Mr. Nichols’s direction, their flaws work in their favor: The play seems less claustrophobic than I remember, the movement enhances style and isolates moments of conflict, and the austerity of Ian MacNeil’s scenic designs makes you think of words like “economy” in the best context possible.

BETRAYAL MIGHT NOT be exactly top-tier Pinter, but The Snow Geese is bargain-basement Chekhov. This dreary, sentimental dirge by Sharr White at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, about a dour, once-prosperous family in upstate New York that falls on hard times when America declares war on pre-Nazi Germany in 1917, has all the elements of Russian tragedy. The anemic, scarcely audible widowed matriarch of this forlorn flock, in an effort to keep old traditions alive, calls her clan together for the opening of the annual hunting season at a dark and gloomy old lodge near Syracuse. Nobody seems to want the enormous champagne breakfast before dawn, the men have no heart for killing the snow geese that gather on the pond, and the staff has been reduced to one maid from the Ukraine. The mother is Elizabeth (a dismally miscast Mary-Louise Parker)—jittery, nervous, on the verge of hysterics and still mourning the death of her late husband, who departed two months earlier. Her sister, Clarissa (Victoria Clark), peels apples and looks like one of the characters in Chekhov’s Three Sisters dreaming about Moscow. Clarissa’s husband, Max (Danny Burstein), is a disillusioned doctor who has been barred from his profession, because he’s German. Duncan, the younger of Elizabeth’s two sons, is a vain soldier who has yet to see combat, and Arnold, the older son, is assigned the heinous job of sorting out the family finances. He has bad news. Father squandered and gambled away all of the money, leaving all of his heirs bankrupt. When his failures are exposed, so are the flaws in every other family member. They all pack up and leave.

Th-th-that’s all, folks! It’s hard to imagine a trifle of such monumental insignificance produced today on Broadway, much less directed by a polished pro like Daniel Sullivan. Nothing of any import ever happens, and the only visible action is a flashback to Elizabeth and her dead husband as young marrieds who don silly costumes, dance an embarrassing Hawaiian hula and babble on about sex. Distracted by ugly sets from an old Dracula movie, trees that seem to grow right through the living room floor and people who enter from the surrounding woods directly into the kitchen, you will hardly care about the teeth gnashing and humiliation expressed by whining people in black shawls forced to change lifestyles through war, penury or death. The overrated Ms. Parker fares better on TV’s Weeds. Onstage, she has developed the maddening habit of swallowing her tongue, rendering entire sentences incomprehensible. The Snow Geese is a terrible play that wouldn’t work even if you could hear it. But chewed up in monosyllables, it’s like being trapped in a production of The Seagull, in Swahili, with the doors locked.