An acting coach of mine once remarked that "art is how we make sense of life." With that in mind, I raced to New York to see two plays, Betrayal and Domesticated, to see what they had to say about betrayal in relationships. I wanted to see if these artists whose work I so admire could arouse any awareness about what lurks in the hearts and minds of men and women who betray one another. My favorite director, Mike Nichols, has his way with British playwright Harold Pinter's Betrayal until Jan. 5, 2014. Domesticated is a new play by Bruce Norris directed by Anna D. Shapiro. You better hurry if you want to wrap your head around these two interpretations of betrayal as both plays are only up through January 5! I am by no means a reviewer, but I have experienced betrayal. My 26-year marriage ended with it, with subsequent lies and deceits still surfacing layers of betrayal. I am interested in exploring the topic and want to know if art imitates life, and more importantly, if it can make sense of it.
First let's start with definitions of the word "betrayal" by Googling (the Free Dictionary, Oxford, Merriam Webster): to be false or disloyal; to lead astray, deceive; to hurt someone who trusts you by doing something morally wrong; to break a promise. Wikipedia even says that "betrayal trauma has symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder." Synonyms for the word betrayal: disloyalty, deception, treachery, trickery, duplicity, perfidy, unfaithfulness, falseness, inconstancy. Not the stuff you would wish upon your daughter, or son, in their relationships, but parents rarely consider the residual effects of their actions when they are doing what makes them "happy."
The actors in both these plays are fantastic which makes each of these investigations into betrayal satisfying, entertaining and distracting from one's own painful experience. Domesticated is a new play by award-winning playwright Bruce Norris starring Jeff Goldbloom as Bill, the philandering politician, and Laurie Metcalf as Judy, his traumatized wife. We get to see them in the throes of dealing with the public scandal of his infidelities and the rippling affect on everyone in their lives. Norris masterfully includes as many characters in his story as there are sides and perspectives on the subject, the outraged daughter (Emily Meade is hilarious), the voyeuristic curiosity of the reporter and TV host (Karen Pittman), the science-based interpretation presented by the adopted daughter (perfectly presented without emotion Misha Seo), the laissez-faire mother-in-law (Mary Beth Piel is so good), the guilty but apologetic husband and the blown-away wife who is in a state of shock. If there aren't all these characters in everyone's story, somehow these dimensions manifest in all of our stories through the way we feel or how people respond or with the mess we have to deal with post betrayal. Betrayal wreaks havoc on families. Mr. Norris in the first act brings everything down onto the politician, laying big-time blame like a Greek chorus in a thunderingly satisfying way. However, by the second act, he steals the rage away and forces us to consider that the punishment put on Bill (Jeff Goldbloom) may be getting lopsided, and, well, he is human and is sorry for what he did and wants to stay married to Judy (Laurie Metcalf). Shouldn't Judy be happy for that and forgive him? Why does the wife seem so unhappy in the last scene as they both sit distantly from each other on the same bench? Well, maybe because his betrayal went so far down the road and now that it would be better for him he wants sympathy. Perhaps that is the most poignant message in Domesticated: that the husband did what he wanted to do before considering the effect on the people he loves, oblivious to the trauma thrown on a family, and now that he is sorry, and unaware of his wife's post traumatic stress, now, he wants the marriage and everything to be good again. Mr. Norris effectively plays out where, the collective we are, by serving up a platter of exactly where we are at these days. Hopefully, one day, we might consider that there is something greater and deeper to consider, worth altering our behavior for even, that will ultimately, make us much happier than we have any concept of now.
Pinter's play, Betrayal, is a far more complicated look at the nuances of betrayal, not to mention how emotions are hidden from intimate partners. Pinter weaves in the layers going backwards in time as opposed to having the story progress chronologically. Structuring the play in this way is emblematic of how it is to emerge from the wreckage of betrayal, your mind peels back in time searching for clues and signs of where it all began. Often, as with Pinter's rendering, the initial prick of betrayal begins with someone's evidence of pulling back love or withholding care that opens up a void for filling with someone else's affection. It is not until the very end of the play that you realize that Jerry (Rafe Spall) betrayed his best friend, Robert (Daniel Craig), by self-indulgently wrapping Robert's new wife, Emma (Rachel Weisz), with extravagant expressions of affection and "love" way back when they were first together. When Robert walks in on this display of affection for his new wife, it is covered and explained away by Jerry's "drunkenness." Robert does not miss the nuance, or the little lie, and turns away from Emma deliberately unaffected and not upset, which she translates possibly that her husband doesn't care. It is this small sign of Robert's uncaring that punctures Emma belief in his love for her and opens the door to let Jerry's affection in. We all need to hear and feel that we are loved. For Emma, the lust between her and Jerry, probably feels like love. The problem is that betraying your husband for his best friend isn't going to make you feel more loved in the long run. Eventually, you will come to terms with the fact that you betrayed your husband and that his best friend isn't much of a friend. With Mike Nichols directing Pinter's already layered play with such high energy, the end result is something very sophisticated. There is a lot to be paying attention in between all of this riotous behavior. This version of betrayal seems more disturbing than Domesticated because the deceit is treated as playful and taken so lightly, as if "getting caught in the moment," meanwhile with so much at stake. Knowing that Pinter's own life mirrored the play gives it a knowing air about infidelity. Pinter began his affair with Antonia Fraser while he was married to Vivien Merchant. Even though Vivien never recovered from the betrayal and died early of alcoholism at age 53, Antonia and Pinter went on to enjoy 28 years of marriage.
Sometimes all one can do is write about it.