Polite people don't discuss unpleasantries such as illicit affairs over lunch. In Harold Pinter's "Betrayal," therefore, when two best friends get together for their regular repast, they talk about the restaurant, the wine and their work, but not the fact that one has recently discovered that the friend sitting across from him has been sleeping with his wife. The cuckold does indulge in a bit of an outburst, but it's only about his job: "I'm a bad publisher -- because I hate books!"
Unfortunately, this ends up being one of the more passionate moments in Fountainhead Theatre's production. Pinter's 1978 play reverses the timeline on its story of infidelity, so the emotion is buried from the very start: Though there certainly can be as much feeling at the end of an affair as during its blossoming, "Betrayal" begins two years past the point when Emma (Charlotte Akin) and Jerry (Dan Via) last saw each other. Their attraction is long since dead.
A slide informs the audience that their reunion is taking place in a London pub in 1977. Besides Emma's announcement that her marriage to Robert (Jim Jorgensen) is over -- and that, oops, she told Robert about their secret -- the former couple's meeting is awkward, slightly antagonistic and seemingly pointless. Their mostly small talk might have been loaded with tension or longing, but Akin and Via keep things cool, and their conversation feels more like the forced chat of estranged acquaintances who didn't really get along to begin with.
"Betrayal" then proceeds to jump back in years, ending with Emma and Jerry's first flirtatious moment at a house party in 1968, but Pinter re-creates their nine-year history with little more than flashes. We get one scene that portrays the height of their affair, for instance, and one that shows its demise, both of which take place at a flat the couple set up for their trysts.
But it takes more than coos of "Dah-ling!" or talk of selling a love nest to show infatuation or heartbreak, and Fountainhead's cast fails to thicken Pinter's simple dialogue by connecting with the emotions behind it.
Or even connecting with each other: Akin and Via rarely display the chemistry of lovers, and Via and Jorgensen, in their stiff conversations, seem the unlikeliest of old friends. The only acceptable disconnect is between husband and wife, though this is due not to a failing but to Jorgensen's subtle portrayal of Robert as a cultivated, good-natured family man who, just underneath his polished surface, is an emotional wreck.
His handling of the play's most loaded monologue, an initially tedious scene in which Robert's prattling about a service worker's willingness to give him a letter addressed to Emma leads her to confess the affair, is the production's most absorbing moment.
But the rest of "Betrayal" never manages to match that level of engagement. Throughout, slides keep the audience updated on the year and setting, which mostly alternates between Robert and Emma's home and the flat. Between scenes, photos of Emma and Jerry -- apparently stills of previous encounters -- are also projected on the screen hanging in the background of the Theater on the Run stage.
Their inclusion was perhaps a last-ditch attempt to add a layer of resonance that the script fails to evoke, but like the characters' small talk, it's only a meaningless distraction.
Betrayal, by Harold Pinter. Directed by Sarah Denhardt. Set and costumes, Lea Umberger; lighting, Jessie Crain; sound, Robert Timothy Jarbadan. Approximately 1 hour 20 minutes. Through Sept. 11 at Theater on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Call 703-920-5923.