In mounting a production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, Imago Theatre provides audiences with a classic example of a well-conceived gimmick, a structural twist that goes beyond cleverness to offer real insight. The gimmick, in this case, is that the play unfolds in reverse chronological order: It begins with two former lovers discussing their relationship, and ends with the moment at which that relationship began. The two lovers are Emma (Maureen T. Porter) and Jerry (Peter Campbell), and the catch is that Emma is married to Jerry's best friend Robert (Todd Van Voris).
Were this story to unfold in chronological order, the premise would be on the pedestrian side. Told backward, however, the scenario becomes a compelling emotional puzzle. Instead of wondering how the love triangle will end, the audience is called upon to consider whether that ending was inevitable (and, by extension, forced to think about other things having to do with love and endings). The play essentially telescopes back to the moment in which Emma and Jerry betray Robert. With each step back in time, the contrast between the innocence of the characters and the knowledge possessed by the audience grows ever weightier, until all that knowledge comes to rest upon the play's final scene.
Under Jerry Mouawad's direction, the cast works deftly within Pinter's curious parameters, revealing bit by bit the true configuration in which the three characters are aligned. Each glance that passes between Jerry and Emma feels significant, and every pause between Robert and Jerry is loaded. Van Voris can work wonders with a raised eyebrow; he's charismatic and complicated as the husband who may know more than he lets on. Porter's transformation is particularly poignant: Drawn and besweatered in the first scene, she grows happier and more luminous as her character becomes younger. Porter and Campbell, though, are noticeably lacking in chemistry, an absence particularly marked in the final scene. It's clear from the text that the attraction between Emma and Jerry subsides over time, but the actors fail to convincingly capture this shifting dynamic; they seem more like brother and sister than passionate lovers.
Visually, Betrayal is impressive. Mouawad's spare, elegant set design inspires approval before the play even begins, and combined with the lighting, reinforces the sense that time is telescoping to a single, crucial moment. It would have been nice if that moment, when it arrived, had been a bit sexier—but you can't win 'em all, and ultimately Imago's Betrayal is a nuanced, disturbing, and compelling accomplishment.