Psst. "Want to know a secret to long-lasting romance? Lie," says Sunday's New York Times, promoting thrice-married philosophy professor Clancy Martin's reflections on love.
The late Harold Pinter, whose play "Betrayal" runs through Feb. 22 at Mountain View's Pear Avenue Theatre, could have penned those words. In nine short scenes, Pinter traces the evolution of a seven-year affair, but in reverse order: from two years after it ends to its spontaneous beginning. In between, the characters engage in clipped conversations, rarely saying what they really mean, except perhaps when they're drunk. With much of the drama between the lines, the three principal actors -- husband Robert (Bill Olson), wife Emma (Maryssa Wanlass) and her lover, Jerry (William J. Brown III) -- reveal more anxiety than amour. That's because everybody lies to everybody else, including themselves (or, to riff on Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," nobody really belongs to anybody else). If, as Martin writes in Sunday's Times, "relationships last only if we don't always say exactly what we're thinking," is "Betrayal" really about the evils of deception or about its necessity? Moreover, how does romance fit into the equation?
"Betrayal" unveils the evolution of Pinter's own seven-year affair with BBC journalist Joan Bakewell while both were married -- Pinter to his first wife, the late actress Vivien Merchant. When he wrote "Betrayal," he was having an affair with author Lady Antonia Fraser, who later became his second wife.
In clipped dialogue -- few speeches longer than a single sentence and many simply a word or two -- Pinter captures the cadences of restrained British intellectuals.
It takes skill and solid direction to reveal, or deliberately conceal, the unspoken in such a way that an audience can perceive the emotions. Director Ray Renati and the actors do an admirable job. Andre Abrahamians, who plays the Italian waiter, adds comic relief to a drama whose weight is mitigated by wit.
According to the backstory, Jerry and Robert were once best friends. In fact, Jerry was Robert's best man at his wedding to Emma, and they were both poetry editors at their respective universities and shared a mutual admiration for Yeats. Jerry is now a successful literary agent, Robert a book publisher who reveals his contempt for contemporary literature while basking in its sales.
Emma, who runs an art gallery, is reportedly having an affair with Casey: a writer represented by Jerry and published by Robert. It's an open secret.
Not so with the now-defunct affair between Jerry and Emma, who had prided themselves on its secrecy, even renting a flat in an out-of-the-way section of London for their afternoon trysts. In fact, it's secrets and lies that made it work -- especially when those who knew kept quiet. Is that the British way? Think "Downton Abbey."
As the play opens in 1977, two years after the end of the affair, Emma and Jerry meet again in a London pub, a meeting she has requested. Presumably, each thinks the other wants to resume the affair, but that's not what they say. After much small talk, Emma reveals that her marriage is ending, and that Robert has been having affairs for years. Emma tells Jerry that after all this time, she has told Robert about their affair, presumably to get even. Jerry becomes livid. How could she betray him?
Confronting Robert, Jerry finds out his friend has known for a long time. Will Robert and Jerry ever play squash again? Why haven't they? And where does Jerry's unseen wife fit into this picture?
The 49-seat Pear Avenue Theatre enables audiences to experience the intimacy -- or lack thereof -- between the actors, while producer Diane Tasca does a creditable job of pulling it all together in a small venue with sets designed by Janny Coté. However, with scenes shifting back and forth in time, an onstage signboard would have made the sequence easier to follow.
Moreover, with the exception of the final scene -- which is actually the beginning of the affair -- the stagehands and the furniture move more than the actors, elongating the play and blunting the impact of the drama. It was a particular distraction on Saturday, Feb. 7, when a foiled sound system delayed the opening and made the normal musical interludes impossible.
While one would hardly call "Betrayal" a Valentine's Day confection -- this is Pinter, after all -- witty dialogue and clever delivery turn a story of dead-end romance into a theatrical treat.
What: "Betrayal" by Harold Pinter
Where: The Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View
When: Through Feb. 22. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Info: Go to thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.