Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ Faithfully Realized at City Garage

By Ernest Kearney – Perhaps the greatest accolade that can be awarded to an author is when the undeniable ascendency of their artistry and achievements is rendered up as an adjective.

Shakespearean, Pirandellian, Dickensian, Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Byronic, Dostoevskian and…



Resembling or characteristic of the works of the English playwright Harold Pinter,
in particular by having a sense of menace and featuring dialogue marked by many pauses

I have noted, however, that I usually encounter the term when employed disparagingly by those reviewing playwrights who have foolishly attempted to emulate the British dramatist’s unique style:

“The playwright is clearly striving for Dennis Potter

style moments of rapture; sadly he achieves only a

bizarre and unintentional effect of Pinteresque non sequitur.”


“The laborious struggle at constructing a singular style

of dialogue on the stage is more ponderous the Pinteresque.

There’s been boundless commentary on what precisely qualifies as “Pinteresque.” Pinter himself, who died in 2008, didn’t care much for the term as he found it meaningless.

But I think it may safely be said, that from among The Birthday Party (1958), The Dumb Waiter (1959), The Caretaker (1960,) his 25 other plays and numerous shorter dramatic pieces Betrayal (1978) is arguably —besides being one of the major works of his career— Pinter’s most Pinteresque plays.

As with most of his works, Pinter limits his dramatic chessboard to only the essential pieces and restricts the conflict to primarily the endgame.

The play opens in 1977 with Emma (Angela Beyer) sharing an afternoon drink with Jerry (Troy Dunn.)  Each are married; Jerry to his never seen, often disparaged wife Judith, a successful doctor.  Emma to Robert (David E. Frank), Jerry’s closest friend and fellow book publisher.  It is the first time Emma and Jerry have seen each other since ending their five-year affair two years earlier.

From this initial betrayal the play collapses backwards into itself like a dying star.  

The third scene, set two years earlier in 1975 shows Emma and Jerry in the small apartment they’ve rented for their afternoon trysts at the point their affair falters and ends. 

The fourth scene that follows is set in the home of Emma and Robert one evening in 1974 when Jerry stops by for a nightcap.  It is the first occasion the audience gets to see all of Pinter’s game pieces in the same room.

This regression continues until the ninth and final scene with Jerry surprising Emma in her bedroom during a party and proclaiming his attraction to her, hence the onset of an affair the audience knows is doomed.

Betrayal does not faithfully maintain the innovative structure first employed in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 Broadway play Merrily We Roll Along with the rearward unfolding of the narrative.

Of Betrayal’s nine scenes, only six retain the ebbing roll that recedes from the opening denouement.

What Pinter accomplishes with this theatrical device, and accomplishes brilliantly, is to unmask the lie of betrayal which both society and individuals find comforting in maintaining.  Pinter shows us, in his Pinteresque fashion, that infidelity is not a single sinning action nor is duplicity held in the lone lie.  Betrayal is not an error we make, but a cancer we spread.  Pinter unlatches a Pandora’s box from which betrayal spews, spreads and echoes.  There is not a moment in this play, not a line of dialogue, not a word, nor a silence between them that is not lacquered with betrayal.

Even the off-stage characters we never see are coated with treachery.  Jerry keeps suggesting that his wife is too busy to have affairs, blind to the irony that he relies on, the same falsehood which disguises his own unfaithfulness.   

Casey is another character who never makes it to the stage.  He is a young writer known and disliked by both Robert and Jerry who seems to provide Emma with a future indiscretion. 

With every character, even those never on stage, Pinter has constructed a Russian doll of betrayal.

Perhaps the power of this work arises from the fact that it is his most autobiographical piece.

Pinter was married to the actress Vivien Merchant from 1956 until 1980.  In 1975, the year in the play when Emma and Jerry’s affair ended, in his own life Pinter became seriously involved with the novelist and historian Lady Antonia Fraser.

In 1980 Merchant and Pinter divorced, and that same year he and Fraser married.

With the end of her marriage to Pinter, Merchant fell victim to severe depression and alcoholism.  She died in 1982 at the age of 53 believing for the rest of her short life that the character of Emma was based on Fraser.

Tellingly, in the play, when the discussion turns to the writer Casey’s use of biographical material in the writing of his novels, Emma accuses the practices of being “bloody dishonest.”

In this work, Pinter has imbued his celebrated silences with a chilling intensity, arising from the fact that in all this maelstrom of faithlessness there is little breakage on stage because the characters are broken to begin with.  This perhaps is even a clue behind their bacchanalia of betrayal, as preferable to feeling the pain’s ache rather than nothing at all. 

To succeed in performing specific playwrights, talent is not enough, a mastery of style is not merely required, it is essential.  This is the case with Wilde, Shakespeare, Restoration comedies and it is certainly so with Pinter.

Fortunately, the cast at City Garage is up for the challenge.  David E. Frank manages to smolder a muted rage in the face of a false friend and deceiving love.  Angela Beyer brings an interesting new hue in her portrait of the unfaithful Emma; the subtler shadowing of desperation that inevitably dooms her desires to disappointment.   Every production has its lynch pin and here it is Troy Dunn. His solid and sure noted presentation as Jerry, is a performance one wishes could be preserved in amber. 

And kudos, too, for Gifford Irvine, for fulfilling the smallest and generally most thankless role in the whole body of Pinter’s works, that of the waiter in the Italian restaurant where Robert and Jerry lunch.

Directed by Frédérique Michel with her usual aplomb and with a firm foundation provided by Producer Charles A. Duncombe, City Garage offers the opportunity to see a masterful staging of Betrayal, one that would win the acknowledgement of even the notorious scornful playwright as perfectly Pinteresque.


Fri, Feb 9, 2024, 8:00 p.m. – Sun, Mar 17 2024, 5:30 p.m.

* * * *


City Garage Theatre

in the

Bergamot Station Arts Center

2525 Michigan Ave T1, Santa Monica, CA 90404

for tickets and information

Ernest Kearney - auhtor

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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