- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

The thing about Harold Pinter plays, to borrow from Spencer Tracy’s assessment of Katherine Hepburn in the film “Pat and Mike,” is that there isn’t much meat on their bones, but what there is is choice.

Spare, cruel and mordantly funny, Mr. Pinter’s plays, like Miss Hepburn, need little adornment. They do need actors who can handle the rhythms and resonance of Mr. Pinter’s clipped, touchstone dialogue, and not much else.

That is why you question the choices of director Sarah Denhardt, who stages a distractingly accessorized production of “Betrayal” for the Fountainhead Theatre.

Your first clue that the director is not comfortable with the material is the bouncy Beatles love tunes that you hear while waiting for the show to start, as well as upbeat pop heartsongs from the 1970s and 1980s that punctuate every scene change.

This is a play about a long-term adulterous affair between a man and a woman who happens to be married to the guy’s best friend, so the “all you need is love” sentiments of Lennon and McCartney seem woefully out of place. Unless the director was going for irony, which, in this case, is misguided.

Even more annoying is a slide show projected above Lee Umberger’s marvelously compact set. The logic behind this ever-changing parade of stills from the show you are watching is baffling. Are we already nostalgic for a 90-minute play we are experiencing in real time? Why not pass out camcorders to the audience so we can film and play back the experience of sitting in a live theater production that features a retrospective of scenes from the show in progress?

All this extraneous nonsense detracts from the cool beauty of “Betrayal,” which features the elegantly simple device of moving back in time. The play begins two years after the affair between Emma (Charlotte Akin) and Jerry (Dan Via) has ended and finishes with their hands touching during a tipsy encounter at a party — a casual gesture that leads to years of lust-fueled entanglements.

You have to hand it to the British; they know how to do adultery. No “no-tell motels” for Emma, an art gallery owner, and Jerry, a literary agent whose favorite publishing house is run by Robert (Jim Jorgensen), Emma’s husband and Jerry’s oldest friend. For five years they rent a flat in a cozy suburb, and as the play coils into itself, you can see the backward progression of the flat from a love nest decorated in memories to an anonymous place where the bed is the focal point.

There also is an enviable civilized feeling about the whole affair. Both Emma and Jerry wish to remain loyal to their spouses and children and to keep their households intact. Throughout it all, Jerry considers Robert his dearest friend, and the two maintain a facade of squash games, many drinks and bantering conversation.

In one telling scene, you can see the cracks in their carefully maintained bonhomie as Robert struggles to maintain his dignity through a wine-soaked luncheon with Jerry after having recently been told by Emma about the affair.

Otherwise, the play moves cleanly and deliberately toward the inescapable pull between Emma and Jerry.

The performances are solid throughout, with Miss Akin especially seeming to shed the weight of years as she moves from a resigned older woman at the beginning of the play to the laughing, light-filled lady with whom Jerry fell in love.

Dan Via is also fine as the restless, deeply unhappy boozehound Jerry. You wish for more erotic tension between the two, particularly in the earlier scenes, even if the lust has that air of English decorum.

As Robert, Mr. Jorgensen is both gentle and nonchalantly cruel, but his portrayal lacks a central sense of omnipotence — as if he were the unwitting controller of the affair between his wife and best friend.

If more faith had been put in the capable actors and Mr. Pinter’s text, this production of “Betrayal” easily could have risen above the level of respectable.

**

WHAT: “Betrayal” by Harold Pinter

WHERE: Fountainhead Theatre at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN:8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 11.

TICKETS: $20

PHONE: 703/920-5923

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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