10/27/2013 10:50 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: Craig, Weisz, Spall in Nichols's Angle on Pinter's "Betrayal"

Something Mike Nichols chose to do when directing the final moments of Harold Pinter's Betrayal -- now at the Ethel Barrymore and starring the well-publicized Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall -- annoyed me so I had to remind myself that up until then, the revered director had brought unusual insight and vitality to the nine-scene intermissionless play. I had to restrain myself from concluding that Nichols had just added another betrayal to the ones covered in the action.

Betrayal is, of course, the play that for the most part moves backward in time from 1977 to 1968 and unravels the affair that Jerry (Spall) carries on with Emma (Weisz), supposedly without the knowledge of her husband and his best friend Robert (Craig).

It's Pinter's stage confession--not that he ever boasted about it publicly -- of the seven-year liaison he had with television personality Joan "The Thinking Man's Crumpet" Bakewell behind her television-producer husband Michael Bakewell's back. (For awhile anyway.) She's the one who came clean about the lengthy episode when she told Pinter biographer Michael Billington, "Betrayal is about my relationship with Harold, and it's all true." She elaborated on it in her 2004 autobiography, Centre of the Bed.

Needless to say Pinter's play must be judged apart from the real-life headlines, and there may be those who say that -- though it's considered a classic since it bowed at London's National Theatre in 1978 with Peter Hall directing -- it's merely a typical extramarital tale and only the manner in which it unfolds keeps it from being a cliché.

Maybe so, but the way it's told and the pith of the scenes as they go from 1977 to 1975 to 1974 to 1973 to 1971 to 1968 is too impressive to dismiss cynically. Enhancing the effect immeasurably is Pinter's complex depiction of what constitutes betrayal, since although Jerry is clearly betraying Robert with Emma -- as is Emma betraying her husband -- Jerry comes increasingly to believe he's been betrayed by Robert for -- uh-oh, wait a second. Going into that would be betraying the twists Pinter works into his succinct drama.

A brilliant script analyst, Nichols even spots something in the lines that, to my knowledge, no other director has. Without discussing it in detail for fear of revealing yet more of the play's psychological insights, my guess is that Nichols is on to something concerning the extent of the regard best friends Robert and Jerry have for each other -- in some ways through all the bad behavior.

(Nichols's notion is so specific that I wondered if he'd known Pinter so well he'd been told about an aspect of the actual triangle the playwright only felt comfortable hinting at as he wrote. This is purely speculation on my part, I emphasize, but I can't stop myself.)
In vivifying Betrayal, Nichols has drawn the best from his players, as he usually does, but not by having them interpret the scenes in the subdued manner they're usually interpreted. Under his guidance, Robert, Emma and Jerry are each robust in their behavior, quick to laugh and quick to raise their voices to one another.

Does it need mention that many in these Betrayal audiences will be there to see box-office name Craig? They won't be spotting anything of his James Bond, though. They might not even think they're seeing Craig. In the role of a cuckold who has difficulty giving in to his deepest emotions, he often resembles Kirk Douglas. Whether Douglas or Craig, he's to be commended for the extent to which, fit as can be, he's submerged himself in the character.

The Oscar winner of the Craig-Reisz household (she won as supporting actress for The Constant Gardener), Reisz brings myriad nuances from the instant the opening sequence begins in which she meets Jerry for a drink two years after they'd called off their harmful idyll. Weisz makes sustained ambivalence towards their shared past a mini-drama all its own. She keeps it up from beginning to end -- or is that from end to beginning?

(In the first scene, Reisz wears make-up that gives her a hard look, which has the suggestion of authentic disillusionment. As Emma becomes progressively younger, the make-up doesn't soften, which doesn't seen right somehow, particularly in the final scene where Jerry raves about Emma's natural beauty.)

Viewed from some perspectives, Spall has the leading role, since Jerry is present and often floundering more than Robert or Emma. In his Broadway bow, the actor is a bundle of impulses, and for that reason hard not to keep eyes on. What trumps Jerry, as Pinter writes it, is (all right, spoiler ahead) his learning that for some time Robert did have more than an inkling of what was up, and Spall doesn't fail to communicate his feeling of being betrayed in that regard.

(Incidentally, the smallest Betrayal role is that of an amenable waiter who provides the several bottles of wine on which Robert gets soused in a Robert-Jerry Italian restaurant scene. Stephen DeRosa is awfully good at it.)

The great Nichols has a connoisseur's understanding of all stage elements and always has had. For his recent Death of a Salesman, he saw that Jo Mielziner's original sets were replicated. Here, he has Ian MacNeil create a series of rooms that glide In from the sides as well as drop from the fly. Each is exactly right for the place and mood. One even contains a statue that looks like an Alberto Giacometti striding man -- symbolic, yes, of both Robert's and Jerry's dogged march through their romantic perils. James Murphy's music covering the scene changes is also quite fine.

Now, I regret to say, there's the not so little matter of where the usually impeccable Nichols betrays Pinter -- or if he doesn't betray him outright, at least lets him down. Because it occurs at the very last seconds of the play, I'm not going to describe it precisely. I'll only say that Pinter's concluding stage direction -- referring to Emma and Jerry, who are alone on stage -- is, "They stand still, looking at each other."

What Pinter wants -- and what's devastating about that specific, uh, Pinter pause -- is that the stage direction dictates the extended moment in which Emma makes the decision setting in motion everything disconcerting we've just seen. What's devastating about Nichols's (undoubtedly deliberate) decision is that he doesn't abide by that crucial stage direction. As a result, what's lost isn't nearly compensated for by what's been substituted. Too bad.

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