Sunday, November 10, 2013

Two Pinter Plays in Two Weeks

Harold Pinter’s Betrayal has been revived on Broadway, the West End, or wherever else many times since its debut in 1978.  Not because it’s a great play, but because actors love the challenge of it.  Betrayal is an interesting character piece, a study of intertwined relationships, with a gimmick — a conceit, if you prefer — in which the playwright plays with our perception of time as he manipulates his characters back in time.

Its three characters live backward before us, so that we see (and the actors play) the end at the beginning all the way through, reverse chronologically, to the beginning at the end of 75 or so minutes.

Mike Nichols is a highly skilled director and the production presently playing to full houses at the Barrymore is polished from curtain rise on 1977 back to 1968, with sets by Ian Macneil sliding in and up and out and down, portraying places where these three characters live and love and hate. 

Pinter tells us in the very first scene everything that’s happened and that therefore we are going to see, but that doesn’t keep us from watching all the way through.  It’s about how, not what.  Each time something is revealed, we yearn to see what happened before that, and before that, and before….instead of next, next, next.  It’s a fascinating conceit and it does work.

While Rafe Spall may not yet be a star in the U.S., he will be.  His besotted Jerry is a delight, Jerry who is nothing special, whom one would pass by on the street, but who inspires love in the other characters.  Mr. Spall’s lanky form curls and slopes and leans into and away from his fellows.  It’s impossible not to watch him onstage, even when Daniel Craig is beside him. 

It is Jerry who is in most of the scenes, and even if he’s not present, the other characters are thinking about him, so we are as well.  The second scene of the play, between Jerry and Robert (Daniel Craig), is beautifully staged, with the long estranged friends starting on opposite sides of the room, crossing past each other’s territory, until the truth allows them to become comfortable with one another again, sitting together.  Gorgeous.  This immediately sets us up, as well, to not particularly like the woman who came between them, Emma.

Despite the fact that Robert admits to having “bashed” her once or twice, Emma (Rachel Weisz) seems always in control of the relationship between herself and Jerry.  Her only vulnerability shows when Jerry leaves for America and she breaks down in front of her husband, whom we’ve just learned knows about his wife and his best friend.

Robert likes to play squash with his male friends and go to the pub afterward, an afternoon and/or evening of all male companionship.  No women.  We can tell he’s a terror on the court and he has noticed that the men he knows or suspects are sleeping with his wife will no longer play squash with him.  He may not be Menelaus, but the savage sometimes rears its head beside that of this cerebral man.

Of the three characters, Jerry is most breakable, most childlike.  Robert has built up a hard shell, humorous when he oughtn’t be, seeming callous.  Daniel Craig makes it clear there’s much more going on than that. 

I was surprised to find Rachel Weisz, whom I quite like on film, to be the weakest link on stage.  Pinter pauses are one thing, but her side of the stage sometimes appeared, sounded, rather empty.

Stephen deRosa’s delightful turn as the waiter in the Italian restaurant is as polished as the three primary roles.

Pinter and the company stimulate our laughter at the vagaries and vanities of human nature.  An intellectual play, Betrayal is not quite great, but it’s more than clever.  It’s not easy to connect with these characters however similar their stories may be to some of ours.  Despite the tight and smart direction, despite the performances, nothing about this production engaged me.  The people did not engage me.  So for all its clever mind games, my heart was untouched.

The second Pinter play was one I’d never seen before and which, although in chronological time, was by far the more confusing of the two.

No Man’s Land is part of a double bill with Waiting for Godot — which I look forward to seeing in a couple weeks — with a highly anticipated cast:   Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen supported more than ably by Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley.

No Man’s Land, unlike Betrayal, is played in chronological time.  Note I did not say “real time,” because this earlier effort of Harold Pinter is wilder, more Beckettian.  Two men are onstage, and we know nothing about them except that one rarely speaks and the other rarely stops talking.  In the grandiloquent role of Spooner, Ian McKellen shines, glows, and takes flight.  As the quieter (for the first act) Patrick Stewart is fascinating in his stillness and sudden spurts of drunken energy.  Mr. Stewart’s character Hirst is falling down drunk but that does not deter him from heading for the drinks cabinet.  The babblefest continues until the entrance of Billy Crudup as Foster, the glibly dangerous younger man, self-appointed caretaker to Mr. Hirst along with Shuler Hensley.  This is typical Pinter, a couple of guys menacing by their very presence.  Foster holds in his violence with enormous effort, which does not lessen his ability to bully.  Shuler Hensley’s Briggs, the more obvious bully, barely speaks while holding himself at the ready.  Mr. Hensley is terribly still, emanating menace. 

The second act gets even more confusing with Hirst, now sober yet less than clear-headed, reminiscing with Spooner while addressing him by another name.  We start to wonder if these two men who’d appeared to be strangers the night before are now old … rivals?  Surely not friends.  None of the confusion is down to the direction by Sean Mathias, which was crisp and clear, rhythmically moving from quickly paced to leisurely.  It’s Pinter having fun with his audience again.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land.
The scenic and costume design by Stephen Brimson Lewis were perfect, lighting (Peter Kaczorowski), music and sound (Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) all contributed to the feelings of claustrophobia, menace, with a bit of “no way out” tossed in  No Man’s Land is beautifully put together.  We may not understand what happened in the second act any more than in the first, but with Pinter, we can always just raise our eyebrows and say, Oh, well, it’s Pinter.

~ Molly Matera, signing off as the fall season really kicks into gear.  So many plays, so little time….