Christine Dolan, May 16, 2015

The silences in Zoetic Stage’s emotionally devastating production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal are complicated, haunting and riveting.

Coached before the show begins by young actor Daniel Llaca who has a brief comic turn as a waiter, the audience quietly observes Pinter’s roiling told-in-reverse story of an affair without contributing its own “whispered” commentary or makicomplicated embraceng the noisy exits and reentries that too often distract from performances in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater.

But the theater lovers in the Betrayal audience isn’t simply following instructions. They’re mesmerized by a fascinating, superbly acted production of a play by a Nobel laureate who turned the emotional lessons of his own long affair into an absorbing work of art.

Photo: Justin Namon

Zoetic, which has won acclaim and a number of Carbonell Awards since it launched at the end of 2010, has had plenty of artistic highs in its relatively brief history. But director Stuart Meltzer’s production of Betrayal, so richly acted by Chaz Mena, Amy McKenna and Nicholas Richberg, belongs at or near the top of Zoetic’s body of work.

Pinter’s 1978 script unfolds largely in reverse chronology, beginning two years after the end of a seven-year affair between a literary agent named Jerry (Richberg) and gallery owner Emma (McKenna). Emma is married to Robert (Mena), a publisher and Jerry’s best friend, while Jerry is married to the never-seen Judith, a doctor. Each couple has two children.

Meltzer has unmoored the play from its original time frame, which begins in 1977 and tracks back to 1968. A key plot point involves a letter Jerry sends to Emma while she’s vacationing in Italy with Robert — this is before the internet and cellphones made long-distance communication between illicit lovers so much easier — but the vagueness about time makes this Betrayal seem even more timeless.

So does the sleek yet classically inspired set design by Michael McKeever: a trio of elevated archways, each containing a single chair, to which the characters can retreat when they’re not playing out a scene. Beautifully illuminated with ever-changing hues by lighting designer Rebecca Montero, the set underscores the essential loneliness and isolation of three people whose lives have been bound together in joy and pain.

McKenna’s attractive Emma is a bit ill-at-ease and brittle as she reunites with Jerry for a drink and a confession: She has spilled the beans to Robert — who, as it happens, has been doing plenty of cheating himself. Richberg’s handsome Jerry is nonplussed. After all, it’s one thing to carry on a long-running affair with your best friend’s wife, another thing for him to know about it. Yet when an emotionally jittery Jerry gets together with Mena’s coiled Robert later that evening to somehow sort out the mess, his friend seems almost nonchalant as he reveals that, not for the first time, Emma lied.

Bridged with music by bass player Dave Wilkinson, the scenes create a rich, cumulative portrait of a triangle capable of betrayal both casual and calculated. Pinter explores jealousy, possessiveness, narcissistic self-interest. He does this in words and subtext-filled silences, periods of thought and reaction that the three actors fill so vividly you can almost hear the ideas running through their heads.

McKenna and Richberg expertly navigate their reverse journey from exes to burned-out lovers to a couple ravenous for sex. In the play’s final moments, which reveal the start of the story, he is drunk and ardent, she bemused and reluctant. But one touch establishes a connection that will affect three lives and cause plenty of collateral damage.

Like his fellow actors, Mena employs an impeccable British accent as he crafts one of the best performances of his career. His reserve as Robert is all surface, just another manipulative tool. Mena’s use of simmering anger and aggression, his ability to say one thing while clearly discussing something entirely different, add up to impressively layered work.

Professional productions of Pinter’s plays are rather rare in South Florida, and for those who love drama that’s both intellectually and emotionally engaging, that’s a shame. Zoetic’s Betrayal is a reminder of just how powerful an insightful production of a great play can be.
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