THE OLNEY Theater's "Betrayal" succeeds in putting across the pain and humor at the surface of Harold Pinter's drama about marital infidelity. But the play's elusive subcurrents, the necessary dryness and delicacy of delivery, and the rancor and sexual heat that lie beneath the characters' veneer of civility, remain out of reach of the Olney's tepid and mechanical production.
In a brilliant renewal of the well-worn theme of the love triangle, Pinter works backward in time, tracing the seven-year affair between Jerry and Emma, who is married to his best friend Robert. Pinter backtracks from the ex-lovers' awkward meeting in a pub in 1977, years after it's over, to the kindling of the tryst in 1968, as Emma considers Jerry's proposition at a party in her home.
In the play's climactic sequence, which comes at midpoint, Robert intercepts Jerry's letter to Emma and maliciously toys with his wife, forcing an admission from her. Later, Robert meets Jerry for lunch, and beneath their banal banter lies the key to "Betrayal," the fascinating dynamic of duplicity and withheld knowledge.
Pinter's characters always say less than they know, but this essential quality of the script is contradicted by the Olney actors, who give everything away in their tactless delivery. There is little connection seen between the characters, and the scenes between the illicit lovers are lukewarm at best. John Neville-Andrews is blunt and bloodless as Jerry, Gwendolyn Lewis has a coolly tantalizing beauty as Emma, but Steven Sutherland as Robert overdoes his snarling baiting of his wife.
Director James D. Waring has urged the cast to lean on the laugh lines, and in a tiny walk-on as a waiter, Richard DeAngelis has been allowed to mug shamelessly for easy laughs, nearly ruining the scene, which depends on the strained cordiality between the two friends. Waring also designed the serviceable set, which features sliding suites of furniture, two bedrooms that roll forward and recede, and attractive cinematic title cards that establish the setting and time of each scene.
BETRAYAL -- At the Olney Theater through August 10.