NEW YORK — Despite the play's reputation as an exquisite fusion of simmering menace and incontrovertible sexual desire, the haunting, richly textured Broadway revival of Harold Pinter's backward-traveling "Betrayal" has been infused with an aching ennui by the redoubtable Mike Nichols, a director who has lived long enough to have seen that even adultery grows old, and the aging adulterers sad and pathetic. Run an affair through the relentless wringer of time and it becomes as confining as a marriage.
That patina of existential despair might come as a surprise to some of those who are paying stratospheric prices to see 90 minutes of Daniel Craig, best known now as 007, playing the character of Robert, who is married to Emma, played by Craig's real-life wife, model and movie star Rachel Weisz. She is conducting a multiyear affair with Jerry, Robert's best friend, played by the cheeky British actor Rafe Spall.
Spall is, of course, much lesser known than his A-list co-stars, but it is Spall who runs off with the show at its crucial junctures, an imbalance that strikes me as perfect for "Betrayal," and, frankly, very much to the credit of these actors. With the wily Nichols putting the wind in their sails, Craig and Weisz, both of whom are up for the exposure, are engaging in a little deconstruction of their celebrity marriage as well as probing the inevitable terror felt by the established and the over-40 when some virile youngster comes nipping at his heels. Or at the heels of his still-beautiful wife.
Spall captures deliciously his louse of a guy, an author's agent by trade who cloaks his sexual ambitions in rhetorical claptrap designed for an audience of one, and with a single aim in mind.
"I don't think we don't love each other," is all he can manage when called by his wearied lover for an accounting of true feeling. Spall's performance is sophisticated enough that, crucially, the audience is fooled along with Emma, an adulteress who, in one of those weird paradoxes so easily embraced, actually wants to create a kind of shadow domesticity in the lovers' rented London flat. There she uses a tablecloth she brings back from a trip to Venice with her husband and the father of her children,
It's in this sad love-nest — Lord, must we all go to die in such places? — that the play's best moment takes place, when Emma must tell Jerry she is pregnant, by her husband. And thus the betrayer, as Spall evokes by resorting to palpable schoolboy-like indignation, is betrayed. Of course, he has no complaint under the terms of this illicit relationship, and given that he wants his own unseen wife to know nothing, he is trapped by the very terms he himself has dictated. Thus is evoked a perfect Pinter-esque paradox, making the case that "Betrayal" is not so far removed from Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," soon also to be revived on Broadway, just a couple of blocks away.
The late Pinter based his 1978 play on his real-life affair with Joan Bakewell, a British TV presenter, and the play is famous for its backward chronology. Actually, "Betrayal," which was filmed in 1983 using Pinter's own screenplay, moves backward and forward, but its forward movements are lurches of a few hours, days or months, while its reversals are longer, measured and inevitable. The brilliance of the device, of course, is that the immediate vista of the malaise of the end has the effect of putting us in a superior position to these characters, whose youthful hoping and grouping, their forced tolerance and oblique confrontation, grow only more pathetic with the passing of the years.
Nichols keeps the play in its era (1968-77), as is essential. The setting, by Ian MacNeil, puts its chips in the temporal pot. The scenes are simple — most amusing is the cheesy Italian restaurant where Robert confronts his disloyal friend without confronting him at all, just as we have watched him do the same to his wife in a hotel room, the unspoken becoming a chasm that opens up before all our eyes.
But how we get from one scene to another is where the action is here, and where the money was spent. Walls fly in like crushing boulders, boudoirs retreat to the wings like the vanishing virility of youth, and time marches back with almost Greek gravitas. It gets a little much, perhaps, but it has the effect of imbuing Pinter's most personal and intimate drama with existential weight.
That is easier now with this play. For those of us of a certain age, young when this play, and these characters, were hot, the piece reveals itself to be far wiser than first was apparent. It turns out that the famous Pinter menace and subtext, the focus of most of the early reviews of this affair, was a trap. They are not the point at all.
Nichols gets the deeper point, which is straightforward, really, and revealing of the transience of everything, especially desire. All three of these actors are on board for this, including the craggy Craig, smart enough to do a play about clinging to the top of the mountain and never admitting your fear of loss, and Weisz, who presents her younger self beautifully and is unafraid to make her naive and pathetic, a easy mark for Spall's Jerry.
"Betrayal" proves remarkably timeless, in all except for its acceptance of book publishing as a virile profession, fielded by testosterone and games of squash. Now, even that is looking like it was just a passing affair.
"Betrayal" plays on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W.47th St., New York; 212-239-6200 or broadway.com/betrayal.