Bleak House

Triple threat: Kent Johnson, Gwendolyn McLarty and Fritz Dickmann deliver the intricate pieces of this dark story with nuance and precision.
Andrew Ruthven

The trio of liars who populate Harold Pinter's dark, disturbing Betrayal are an astonishingly civil lot, especially given the rather rotten way they treat one another. But what else would we expect from Pinter? No contemporary playwright knows more about the eviscerating power of irony. These smart, martini-sipping characters never so much as raise their voices, yet they still manage to eat away at one another's spirit with an acrid, nasty clarity that dissolves the sad delusions that each has assembled for daily survival.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its unrelentingly demonic take on human nature, the play, which first appeared in 1978, remains intellectually and dramatically vibrant. And under the elegant and almost reserved direction of Patti Bean, the seamless production now running at Main Street Theater is haunting.

One of Pinter's most startling devices here is the manner in which he deals with time. Because he begins at the end of a seven-year affair between Jerry (Fritz Dickmann) and Emma (Gwendolyn McLarty), the audience immediately knows that this is a sad and somewhat tawdry lot. We first meet Emma and Jerry at a local pub, where they hook up for a drink some two years after the end of their liaison. Without sex, these two suave intellectuals -- he's a literary agent, she a gallery owner -- are reduced to the inanity of small talk. "Funny lot, painters, aren't they?" observes Jerry, after asking Emma how her gallery is going. "They're not all that funny," she answers, looking deep into her glass of wine. "Aren't they?" he quips back. "What a pity."



Main Street Theater in the Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard

Through Sunday, October 7; 713-524-6706. $20-$30

It is this sort of utterly common exchange that makes Pinter so masterful. He uncovers the bleak emptiness of life in our everyday talk, in our meaningless chatter. Jerry and Emma discuss their work, their children, their spouses, but they really have nothing of consequence to say to each other. When Emma finally blurts out, "I just wanted to see how you were. Truly. How are you?" Jerry can offer her no more than "Oh, what does it matter?"

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We discover that none of it has meant anything -- to Jerry, to Emma and, most surprising, to Robert (Kent Johnson), Emma's husband. Even more disturbing is the ease with which these soulless creatures tell lies. As we move back in time, we discover that Robert has known about the affair for years, even while he has remained good friends with Jerry. Despite Robert's secret knowledge, the two men drink scotch, play squash, eat big Italian meals and talk shop long into the night. We don't for a minute feel sorry for Robert. He's a menacing ghoul who tells his wife, "I've always liked Jerry rather more than I've liked you," after he discovers the affair. And Jerry remains blissfully unaware as he diddles Emma one day and drinks wine with Robert the next.

These oblique ironies pile up as time marches backward. And they require a smart, competent cast to make them both real and vital. Each of these three cool, crafty actors delivers the intricate pieces of this story with nuance and precision. McLarty's thin, icy Emma is the exquisitely unavailable smart man's blond bombshell. While it's true she's willing to sleep with Jerry, there is no warmth or tenderness to her at all. McLarty carries herself with an aloof, airy reserve. Her feathery hands flutter to her white neck when anything unnerves her; this is a woman who enjoys playing house with a charming lover but knows nothing about the down-and-dirty side of committed love.

Even though Dickmann's Jerry is a grown man, he comes off with roguish and almost boyish earnestness. Never mind that he's carrying on a long-term affair with his best friend's wife; he means to do damned well by all concerned. His idea of taking care of everyone, including his wife and kids, is to make sure no one finds out he's misbehaving. Once he discovers that Robert has known all along, he takes it like a child who learns there's no Santa: "But we've seen each other a good deal over the last four years. We've had lunch," he says, utterly incredulous. With wide eyes and a face full of adult-sized innocence, Dickmann makes Jerry, the two-timing heel, the fool of the situation.

The devil in all this bad behavior turns out to be Johnson's malevolent Robert. His silence and deceptions are the worst of all, for they are the most manipulative. He enjoys knowing his wife's secret and reveals his awareness only because he seems to enjoy watching his reptilian spouse squirm under his gaze. Johnson captures all the violence hidden behind the carefully crafted mask of civility that Robert wears with such exquisite perfection.

This black tale is played out on Kirk Markley's gracefully fragmented set of charcoal-colored floors and mahogany coffee tables. It's a rarefied world of good manners, graceful dinners and the sort of poisonous betrayals that rot the soul.

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