Lantern Theater Company, Philadelphia

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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The Lantern Theater Company’s production of Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ is more than a reminder of what great material Pinter gave actors to work with and how compelling his theatrical voice was. Under Kathryn MacMillan ’s direction, this is provocative, erudite Pinter performed by a fine trio of actors- Jered McLenigan, Gregory Isaac, and Genevieve Perrier.

Pinter’s drama about cheating spouses in England during the swinging 60s and 70s is self-voyeuristic famously based on the playwright’s own affair with a BBC celebrity.  But rather than being an intellectualized soap opera, ‘Betrayal’ is an emotionally visceral, fine chamber theater piece.

The play opens in 1977, two years after the end of an affair between literary agent Jerry (McLenigan) and art curator Emma (Perrier) who is married to publisher Robert (Isaac). Making things even more complicated is that fact that Robert has been Jerry’s best friend since their heady days at Oxford and Cambridge.   

You can imagine the theatrical punch of Pinter’s intimate and wry dialogue of British academic class in its era, but by now can strike as a dated contrivance. The first scene puts Jerry and Emma awkwardly together over a drink and resonates with self-conscious brittleness. But Pinter unpacks their emotional turmoil, as the events of their affair unfold in reverse chronology, back to their first kiss in 1968. Key incidents over seven years reveal who knew what and when and what they did and didn’t do about the situation.

Pinter isn’t interested in moral judgments, but deals in the emotional realities of navigating love and lust, and rationalizing cheating on one’s marriage vows. Jerry and Emma are so in love that they have an out of the way flat for their lovemaking, but over time their passion doesn’t move them to leave their spouses or their children. The arrangement implodes when they find out that their secrets are not so secret, they are in uncharted emotional waters.

MacMillan’s directorial precision is showcased in the pivotal scene between Robert and Emma, where is one of the finest things that Pinter has ever written for the stage. It is intense, yet requires the utmost subtlety and emotional truth from the actors. Robert is bitter about Emma’s betrayal, but he also talks about how he knew Jerry before her. Almost romantically about their days at Oxford and Cambridge, both poetry scholars. He feels doubly betrayed, even though he doesn’t seem bothered by his own hypocrisy.

Robert’s seemingly casual dialogue about their friendships shatters the facades of the affair. Enough to ask with a straight face how they have managed to keep it secret for so long “It must be difficult, after all, they have two kids and we have two kids.” Perrier and Isaac bring so much to this complex and electrifying scene.

Jered McLenigan’s awkward earnestness, his Oxford peer accent with a wry bite that, however haughty, works well.  Isaac is both coolly calculating, knows who he is and is quietly volcanic.  It is hard to take your eyes off of Perrier, she is so emotionally true in every moment as Emma, willing to betray her husband, but also be honest about what she has compromised, Even with some inconsistencies, the actors for all intents are spot on with their British accents.

Kudos to LeVonne Lindsay’s brilliant costume designs-  From Emma’s understated mod floral to her gaucho tweedy trousers perfect for a row with Jerry, as she contemplates walking out on the affair. A jejune off-yellow silk print lounger for her vacation in Venice, as she reads her book and Robert reads between their roiled relationship lines, with calculated bitterness, standing in Italian loafers with no socks. It is period design perfection set against Meghan Jones geometric furniture on a tiered set, and shadowy lighting designs by Shannon Zura, with Christopher Colucci’s noirish music all stylishly framing these fine performances and vintage Pinter.

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