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Zawe Ashton ,Tom Hiddleston, and Charlie Cox star 




                           By Ron Cohen


Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which premiered in London in1978, is making its fourth stand on Broadway, and three superbly honed performances make clear there’s still plenty of juice to be squeezed from this minutely detailed saga of marital infidelity.


The production, directed by noted Pinter interpreter Jamie Lloyd, has been imported from London after an acclaimed run. It gives us Pinter with the stage trappings stripped down to a minimum. There are a couple of chairs, a folding table, some drinking glasses and beer bottles, and a small assortment of other props. Plus one costume per actor.


The concept keeps the actors in blazing focus, revealing deep nuances, churning emotionality and surprising humor that might get lost in a more conventional production laden with all the scenery and garb suggested by the script’s varied locales and time shifts.


Informed by Pinter’s own experiences, the play begins two years after Emma (Zawe Ashton) and Jerry (Charlie Cox) have ended their long affair. The two are catching up over drinks, and Emma informs Jerry that with her marriage breaking up she has just told her husband, Robert (Tom Hiddleston), about the affair. It’s news that upturns Jerry’s usual easygoing demeanor. After all, Robert is his best friend.


The whole conversation is rather glib, almost a clever parody of drawing room comedy repartee. There are laughs aplenty. But the gravity of the situation looms in the background with Robert not literally in the scene but very present.


Perhaps the most significant directorial choice made by Lloyd is to almost always have the three actors on stage even though most scenes involve just two. It’s a constant reminder that such deception always involves those being betrayed as well as those carrying out the betrayal. And Hiddleston’s Robert makes the most of it, transmitting the pain and damage Emma’s deception is causing him from behind his seeming composure as a respected publisher.


As the play unwinds, Ashton’s Emma reveals herself to be a curious mélange of tenderness and self-involvement, aware of the hurt she’s causing Robert (it turns out he knew about the affair for years) but somehow unconcerned.


And Cox’s happy-go-lucky exterior as Jerry is the perfect counterpoint, often keeping the mood nicely upbeat. Jerry is a noted literary agent, married as well but apparently unworried that his wife, busy with her own career, would care about the affair if she knew.


He and Robert have been best pals since college days. One of the most masterful scenes comes when the two meet for a lunch that becomes a battle of forced smiles as the old friends discuss everything – from squash games to literature – except for the matter that looms over the meeting: Jerry’s affair with Emma. (Eddie Arnold as an impatient Italian waiter trying to be helpful over menu choices adds to the comic potency.)


From the opening with Jerry and Emma’s post-affair meeting, the play through a series of scenes moves back in time to the start of the relationship, with Jerry making his move on Emma with surprising ardor and passion. It happens in the kitchen of Robert and Emma’s home, while the unseen Robert travels about the stage seated in a chair holding in his arms his sleeping daughter. At one point, he is almost nose to nose with Jerry.


It makes for great, jolting theater. And while the production is minimalist, the subtle contributions made by the creative team should not be overlooked: the shape-shifting set design by Soutra Gilmour, who also did the costumes, and the way it allows the actors standing still to glide about the stage; the varied colors of Jon Clark’s lighting, and the inobtrusive but affecting sound design and composition by Ben and Max Ringham.


Still you may at times get a feeling that what you’re watching are three actors exploring a text in the bare environment of an acting class. (With Broadway prices, they couldn’t afford a little more scenery, a cynic might ask. To be fair, there are some $25 tickets for this show, along with a digital lottery.)


But what magnetic actors they are.


All three are making their Broadway debuts. Hiddleston is the big marquee name, known in England for his accomplished classic stage performances but in the U.S. primarily for his appearances in the Avenger movies (not to mention his 2016 summer romance with pop goddess Taylor Swift).


Yet all three are indeed auspicious debuts, and this intense, intimate dive into one of Pinter’s most acclaimed works is no betrayal of the playwright’s genius.


Review posted September 2019

Broadway play

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

242 West 45th Street

212 239 6200

Playing until December 8