"Betrayal," an elaborately trite, mind-numbing trio for nonentities composed by Harold Pinter, that peerless theatrical thumb-twiddler, prompted me to break out the grand old Nichols and May comedy album "Improvisations to Music."
In less than five minutes of their "Second Piano Concerto," Nichols and May parody a fondly remembered sitting target, Noel Coward's "Brief Encounter," in a deadpan style that surpasses Pinter's attentuated approach to ridiculing more or less the same cliches of adulterous "passion." Quicker, funnier and more insightful, Nichols and May certainly have it all over Pinter at this particular game in every entertaining respect.
It's astonishing how often Pinter's cryptic exchanges in "Betrayal," now at the Outer Circle, seem to echo straightforwardly funny exchanges in the Nichols and May routine. The setting of "Second Piano Concerto" was a dentist's office, where the doctor and his patient decide to do The Noble Thing and break off an adulterous affair. Here's one of the more inspired passages:
May: When I saw that Morris knew--he knows, you know, he does know. . .
Nichols: Morris knows?
May: He's always known, I think.
Nichols: Oh, I didn't want Morris to know.
Nichols: I like Morris, so veddy much.
May: He likes you too. He likes you so much. More than me, I think. Sometimes he chuckles when he talks about you. I wanted us to be so happy, all three of us, but it can't be, can it?
Nichols: I don't want to do this to Morris. I don't think it's right.
May: I'm going away, Adolph.
Nichols: You too?
Verbally, these two are on the same wave length of abstracted communication shared by the adulterous lovers of "Betrayal"--Jeremy Irons as a London literary agent named Jerry and Patricia Hodge as Emma, the wife of his best friend, Rob, a publisher played by Ben Kingsley. It amuses Pinter to pretend to dramatize the wildly unstimulating Seven-Year Affair of Jerry and Emma anticlimactically. Instead of unfolding in chronological order, the plot folds up in reverse. Pinter begins with a scene that takes place after the lovers have broken up and then backtracks.
If you doubt the Nichols and May echoes, consider an interlude set in a hotel suite in Venice. Emma has confessed to Rob that she and Jerry have been lovers but assures her hubby about the paternity of their little boy.
Emma: He's your son. Jerry was in America for two months.
Rob: I've always liked Jerry. To be honest, I've always liked him rather more than I've liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.
Emma (changing the subject?): Did you go to Torcello?
While Jerry, Emma and Rob may sound like satiric evocations in the style of Nichols and May, the author's fundamental lack of human sympathy with his characters tends to spoil the funny aspects of his idiom. The characters are vaguely hateful abstractions, closer to random impulses and unconscious, absent-minded and potentially demented mutterings.
Watching Irons refine his weakling persona may provide some idle diversion for jaded moviegoers, and trying to figure out the fatal attraction of Patricia Hodge's arch Emma could keep metaphysicians busy for a lifetime.
The most persuasive hunch is that Jerry is simply stinking drunk when he makes his initial pass at Emma and she reciprocates, evidently dazzled by his line "You dazzle me, my jewel!" which could have been articulated properly only by W.C. Fields. BETRAYAL
Directed by David Jones; screenplay by Harold Pinter; director of photography, Mike Fash B.S.C.; music by Dominic Muldowney; edited by John Bloom; production designer, Eileen Diss; associate producer; Eric Rattray. Produced by Sam Spiegel for 20th Century-Fox International Classics. This film runs 95 minutes and is rated R. THE CAST Jerry....Jeremy Irons; Robert....Ben Kingsley; Emma....Patricia Hodge