Adultery's corrosive power is not merely derived from physical transgression, from fleeting acts of passion that leave no visible trace. The burn comes when secrets are created, when truth is betrayed by innocuous lies and fleeting omissions. Eventually reality becomes a hollowed-out thing, a shadow play of surfaces that makes a difficult world even harder to take. This realization is at the core of Harold Pinter's 1978 Betrayal, a work much more about the mind than the body, currently receiving a chilling, if intermittently chilly, treatment at the Jungle.
The action opens with Jerry (Bob Davis) and Emma (Michelle O'Neill) sharing an awkward drink. After Emma icily inquires about Jerry's wife, and he returns with questions about her family, we quickly learn that the pair once shared a long-term extramarital affair, and that the ashes and embers between them have long since cooled. From here we weave backward in time scene by scene to unfold the circumstances that got them there. Pinter pioneered this narrative device, which later inspired a number of sequences in Star Trek: The Next Generation and was co-opted by an episode of Seinfeld.
Soon enough Jerry (note that we are no longer discussing Seinfeld) is spilling his guts about the affair to Robert (J.C. Cutler), who does double duty as his best friend and as the man he cuckolded for nearly a decade. Cutler, in these early scenes, is a man for whom the world has long since confirmed his darkest suspicions, and his jagged profile collapses under the stage lights into two dimensions--he gives a sense of someone who has collapsed into himself amid the ruin of his marriage and found things, overall, awful but strangely tolerable.
Director/designer Bain Boehlke's set is backed by stone arches, in front of which various tableaus take place. As we jump into the dramatic Wayback Machine, a great deal of furniture and props needs to be wheeled in and out, and while business is being conducted in the dark, the audience views video of the actors offstage looking sort of moony and depressed. I can't say that this staging choice enhances the storytelling, but it is at least an imperfect solution to the logistical logjam the play's numerous settings present.
As events progress (or regress, take your pick), it becomes fairly apparent that Pinter's play would be no great shakes if presented sequentially. Character development is fairly minimal: Robert is a publisher, Jerry is a literary agent, Emma eventually runs an art gallery (we're about halfway to a Woody Allen script). The key, though, is the work's willful disengagement from linear time, and the way in which it necessarily forces us to confront the roots of personal diminishment and the erosion of the spirit. As the years pass in reverse little details are remembered, then occur, that reveal the various characters' faulty recall. It is as though the deceitfulness of their acts reaches forward and back in time to cheapen the cornerstones of what they remember about themselves.
Davis plays Jerry as fundamentally good-natured, enjoying his life without dwelling too obviously on its implications. His scenes with O'Neill are a bit murky until we reach the end, when we see him full of whiskey courage seducing his buddy's wife at a party, spouting half-assed grandiosity and even including Robert at one point (it is a crucial scene that Davis pulls off). It is here that we learn that Jerry and Emma's romance was based on a fairly random impulse, and it requires no great stretch to view the play's opinion of its own characters as dry, meaningless, and perhaps pitiful.
O'Neill herself is hard to reach, though as the evening progresses, her enigmatic cool melts and she looks younger (Ricia Birturk's costumes assist) until we reach the party, when she is lovely, and obviously lost. In almost every scene the characters are engaged in boozing, busily erasing past, present, and future. No wonder. There is such a glacial distance inherent in this story, with its clinical dissection of the human mind and the way it defends its own mendacity, that one senses the actors struggling for connection. Still, while a viewer might feel pushed away, there is an accompanying urge to push back, to engage. This production gives a convincing take on a world narrowing and opening up--at the same time.
Kimberly Joy Morgan's Hot Comb, a one-woman show, adeptly turns the varieties of African American women's hairstyles into a metaphor for more penetrating truths. Morgan incarnates eight characters ranging from a little girl to a civil attorney to a flashy fashion queen, effectively disappearing into each persona while not overselling the concept. The title refers to a metallic comb heated on a stovetop and used to straighten and style hair. Morgan's guileless child recounting burns from the hot comb is disturbing on several levels, while also functioning somehow as a warm nugget of memory.
There are moments when the overall concept thins, such as during an academic discourse on dreadlocks, but these instances are balanced by such sequences as a historic exposition on hair-straightening chemicals delivered in a Harlem beauty parlor, the narrowing of romantic options for a young woman who cuts off her perm and goes nappy, and a rapturous ode to extensions delivered in a club by an unapologetic scenester (a deft counterpoint to simplistic notions of "natural is better"). The show pushes its single metaphoric idea to the edges of its usefulness, but Morgan admirably keeps the emphasis on storytelling and refrains from polemic. The notion of conforming to others' norms as a form of self-enforced oppression is not a new one, but Morgan renders it with subtlety without abandoning the deep reality that beauty is its own truth.