Walk down an alley off restaurant-crammed Locust Street , and an usher takes your name and leads the way to a reserved seat, one of 49 in the house. Seascapes and Sunday- painter sunsets line the walls inside the theater. You half-expect cream sherry to be served with the show. But quaintness has no place in Betrayal, Harold Pinter's meticulous 1980 dissection of marital treachery. Credit director Lois Grandi's attentive cast for making you forget the theater's seaside-inn atmosphere and focus on the adultery at hand.
The play charts a seven-year love affair between a London literary agent, Jerry (Simon Vance), and an art gallery owner, Emma (Cynthia Bassham). What makes "Betrayal'' emotionally complex, at once fateful and strangely tense, is Pinter's trick of telling the story backward.
The first scene is a pub reunion two years after the affair is over. The last is a party, nine years before, when a drunken Jerry declares himself to Emma in her bedroom. In between come various two- and three-way scenes with Emma's publisher husband, Robert (Clive Chafer), who is also Jerry's business associate and nominal best friend. Jerry's wife never appears.
By reversing the clock, Pinter scrutinizes the corrosive process rather than the outcome of the affair. The central betrayal, already finished as the play begins, recedes as a web of other lies and deceits is revealed. One by one they register as quiet shocks -- Emma calmly lying to her ex-lover about when her husband knew she was cheating, Robert hinting to Jerry about a friendly squash game that will never happen, the lovers betraying each other in their love-nest flat.
At its best, the cast gives Pinter's suavely cultivated language a telegraphic charge. A barely perceptible beat supplies the sexual connotation in Jerry's line to Emma: "We can't come out here for a quick . . . lunch.'' Even a moment of comic confusion about a waiter in another scene -- "Is he the one who's always here, or is he his son?'' -- reflects the play's woozy hall-of-mirrors logic.
Chafer, his face composed, is especially good at registering Robert's sometimes smirking, sometimes laser-eyed silences. Vance gives Jerry a boyish ebullience that makes his ability to keep a secret seem a lucky accident. In a scene where Robert unwittingly reveals a lie Emma has told Jerry, Vance looks as if he's swallowed a bug.
Bassham, turned out in a series of increasingly youthful hairstyles, is like a smooth, glassy pool stretched out between these two men of opposing temperaments. In one beautifully played scene, she sits propped up in bed with a book open on her lap, her unchanging posture and expression preserving her distance from an accusing husband.
This "Betrayal'' doesn't strike or time its notes so well throughout. The action is too hurried at points, too pointedly indicated at others, and unnecessarily stalled by an intermission. Doug Ham's monochrome set of movable walls fails to convey the mood of the play's private rooms and public spaces. The hyperventilating music clashes with Pinter's astringent dialogue.
Missteps aside, the sold-out weeknight house was well-deserved. No one gave the watery art display a second look.