Unraveling in Reverse 

Aurora stages Pinter's intimate Betrayal.

British actor and playwright Harold Pinter's work is all about moments. According to his wife Antonia Fraser in critic Michael Billington's The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, "Harold's memory is not linear at all. He's got a memory like a camera as if he's taking shots. Occasionally they are moving photographs: extraordinarily sharp and vivid, but not necessarily connected." Fraser's assessment is right on target when it comes to the British playwright's Betrayal, which tells a story of infidelity through nine short, crystalline scenes. Although the pieces are small and the characters subdued, taken as a whole the play is haunting, full of all those moments we so hate living through: the dissolution of a love affair, the realization that one has been lied to, the disappointment of youthful dreams. Quiet and contained, Aurora's production starts out cool and cerebral yet ends visceral and sad.

Much like the film Memento, the story is largely told in reverse order. The play opens with former lovers Emma and Jerry talking in a pub about their long-dead affair, and ends with their first stolen kiss in the bedroom Emma shares with her husband. Also like Memento, as the play unfolds we realize that lie has been piled upon lie, and after a while it's hard to identify who, if anyone, is really to blame for what happened. Jerry and Emma cheated on their respective spouses, but weren't the only ones lying about what they were up to. Then Emma neglected to tell Jerry that she'd told her husband Robert about the affair, leaving him in the dark for several years. Meanwhile, Robert never let on to Jerry that he knew, and the two men -- friends since school -- continued to share lunches and games of squash. It's all very civilized and all very sad, especially as layers of lies and disappointments peel away to reveal the three characters seven years before. They're not just young, but seemingly impervious: Emma is cheerful and open, Jerry passionate and charming, Robert excited about his work in publishing.

Unlike such similar works as The Dinner Party, which also follows two couples backwards through an infidelity, all of the relationships aren't spelled out here. Pinter, who also is a poet, is more economical in his storytelling than that. Instead he shows the emotional peaks and valleys -- the Venetian vacation where Robert confronts Emma with evidence of the affair, the moment where old friends Robert and Jerry finally talk about what's happened, the afternoon Emma and Jerry break up. Pinter may be spare in his design, but he's generous with his characters, all three of whom are sympathetic even if they're busy lying to each other.

Betrayal didn't do well critically when it first opened in 1978, which Billington puts down to the fact that it was a very political period in British theater. He speculates that this small, introspective story wasn't big and brash enough for the critics, or as searing as Pinter's previous work, and admits that he himself didn't take to it at first. But it's a perfect size and shape for the Aurora, and timeless in its dead-on depiction of hearts breaking.

As a kid during WWII, Pinter was evacuated from London's East End to the countryside during the Blitz, to which he credits his skill for creating menace in his work. This play is no exception, which is no small feat considering that the worst (visible) thing happens near the beginning, and we spend the rest of the play watching how it came to pass. But Betrayal is even more personal in that it's based on the story of his affair with journalist Joan Bakewell (they were both married to others at the time) and the end of his first marriage. Some of the details are a perfect match: a seven-year affair, the end of a friendship between two men, even the tossing of a baby in the air.

While the inclusion of so much real-world material could have made the story plod, Pinter's poetic ear keeps the dialogue true, and he chooses his images wisely. The scene where Emma and Jerry decide to pack it in is a distillation of every breakup you've ever been through. Whether you believe it's the right thing to do, there's that moment before the words are said where you hope beyond measure that it really isn't going to happen. Carrie Paff and Christopher Marshall both radiate carefully controlled stiff-upper-lip pain as they discuss the fact that they no longer spend the afternoons together; neither needs to come out and say, "It's over, isn't it?" This is not a Jerry Springer moment. These are adults, trying to behave like adults by not showing how they really feel. Charles Robinson's Robert does the same thing when Emma confirms his suspicions about the affair, and then later when he talks to Jerry. In his case, though, he's trying to provoke one of the others, striking out in an attempt to assuage his own pain. The way Emma cringes as if she's afraid she's going to be hit, Robert's casual brusqueness, Jerry's inability to retain details about past events: These people and their story are painfully real, yet there's still a lyric quality to the play.

One example of the play's elegiac quality is the baby-tossing image, which comes up early. Emma remembers a happy moment when Jerry tossed her and Robert's baby Charlotte in the air and caught her. It becomes a recurring theme, the idea of a weightless yet transitory happiness. In one London production, the image was reinforced by the use of a projected video. Here, set designer Mikiko Uesugi has hung strings of mundane objects -- a teddy bear, baby clothes, books, a dollhouse lit from within -- from the ceiling. The audience is faced with everything these two couples have hanging in the balance -- their carefully arranged family lives, children, possessions.

Uesugi's design, while consistent with the subtlety of the story, is really quite striking for all its simplicity. At the beginning of the play, all of the furniture not in use for the first scene is piled up at the back of the stage, visible to the audience. As the play progresses, the pieces (a bed, chairs, tables) are brought forward and then taken offstage at the end of scenes, until the last scene, where we're left with a full-length mirror and a bed draped suggestively in deep red. The pieces of furniture serve as physical representations of the wreckage that has built up between these three people, an ungainly tangle of legs and seats and neglected gifts.

Pinter suggests the material quality of these enmeshed lives in the dialogue, as when the estranged lovers discuss what to do with the furnishings of their love nest. Jerry doesn't remember where stuff came from, while Emma's voice is heavy when she says "we bought everything." Clearly this is emblematic for her -- she really wanted to make a home with him, and he wasn't paying attention. The weight of the Venetian tablecloth is particularly obvious as a result; she brought it back from a trip with her husband where one of the first betrayals took place. Pinter reveals these telling details in the dialogue, and Uesugi reinforces them in the design, which is quietly supported in turn by cool jazz music between scenes and oversized shadows cast by Jon Retzky's moody lighting. Aurora's Betrayal is a small and intimate story composed of a few strong moments, but a carefully thought-out and layered one.

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