Mike Nichols’ Betrayal:
You Can’t Argue with Success
(Well, maybe just this once…)
Twenty-five years ago I eagerly anticipated a production of Waiting for Godot at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater directed by Mike Nichols and featuring an all-star cast, including Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham and Robin Williams.
I saw it.
For me, the two most vivid images of the evening were Al Goldstein (then publisher of Screw magazine) and Lauren Bacall, both asleep in the audience.
Waiting For Godot was, like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a must-see event based on the names attached. The obvious question arises now, as it did in 1988, how could so much talent be assembled without anything resembling a significant result—aside from the guaranteed gate for such a star-studded package and the opportunity to see real-life husband and wife, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, betrayed?
Like Waiting for Godot,Betrayal is a challenging play. Its intricate narrative flows backward in time, telling the story of Robert (a publisher), Emma (a gallery owner and Robert’s wife), and Jerry (a literary agent, Robert’s best friend since university and Emma’s long-time secret lover).
Like Waiting for Godot, it is a deep and accommodating text if the actors and director begin by making only three monumentally simple assumptions:
1) the characters all mean exactly what they say;
2) each time a character speaks he or she accomplishes something quite specific, not merely a broad intention or simple attitude; and
3) the characters do not keep saying and therefore doing the same thing over and over again, anymore than we do, for lack of a better phrase, “in real life”.
For instance, Jerry remembers a moment in Emma’s and Robert’skitchen with their daughter. “I threw her up”, he recalls. By “I” he means himself, by “her” he means Emma and Robert’s little girl, and by “threw her up” he must mean he lifted her and tossed her up in the air, presumably catching her on the way down. No matter who’s acting Jerry, no matter what he’s been directed to do or think, if he doesn’t mean exactly this when he tells Emma (and us) “I threw her up” then he’s no more acting the character of Jerry than a bus driver is driving a bus with his hands off the wheel.
Let me beat this to death a moment longer.
“Before the actor does anything else,” means anything else. He must make a statement of absolute fact based on a clear memory or vision. To ask if he really does these very specific acts of mind because he’s acting in a play would be like asking an NFL linebacker if he really tackles a runner because he’s playing a game. We don’t go to a football game to see the game interpreted; we go to see it, duh, played.
If the actor fails to commit these obvious but crucial acts, let’s call them “acts of mind” then absolutely nothing will happen, at that moment or in the very next moment—when, in the case of this wonderful play, Emma reminds Jerry that it was not her kitchen, but his kitchen, where this playfulness took place. His memory has betrayed him, not an unimportant event in the development of his character, nor in a play titled Betrayal…
Sounds simple, but in just such fundamentals a production of Betrayal evolves, and this production remained clueless. The evening at the Barrymore was mechanical, predigested, synthetic; attitudes, mannerisms, rhythms and gestures were hauled from one scene to the next by actors who seemed otherwise unengaged and undirected—beyond engaging in some extraneous behavior grafted on despite its irrelevance—perhaps intended to keep our attention, but also to assert the director’s control in lieu of more important work avoided elsewhere, and definitely in lieu of doing what Pinter handed Nichols to do, time after time.
Ben Brantley, in the New York Times, astutely describes a few of these garnishes and gives a feel for three separate moments in what he rightly called a “crude and clunky” evening:
“Once Jerry leaves, Emma starts to cower and tremble as if she expects Robert to hit her. Instead he kisses her — hard and bruisingly — and then forces her onto the sofa where he starts to undress her. Between you and me, I’m not really sure how much Emma wants what’s coming, even if Robert is Daniel Craig. But it’s an unsettling, uncomfortable moment, fraught with blurred layers of love, hate and power.
“Let me pause here to give you Pinter’s original stage directions for that moment: ‘Robert returns. He kisses her. She responds. She breaks away, puts her head on his shoulder, cries quietly. He holds her.’ That suggests rather a different tone, no?
“There are no stage directions, either, for the simulated copulation (she’s on top) that takes place . . . between Jerry and Emma in the love nest where they meet for erotic matinees. Nor is there any indication in the script regarding the scene in which the affair between them begins, that he is as drunk as any jerk in a Hangover movie, and she is smoking pot.”
Three interpolations, presumably by Nichols, three pointless intrusions, three evasions of what is given to be done. I’m not suggesting, I hope you realize by now, that we should sit in the audience with a copy of the play and follow along to make sure the director and actors are doing the play as it was written.
But what is the effect of all this aimless sidestepping if they don’t?
Frank Rich, in his original review of Waiting for Godot, answers the question in brief. Commenting on Robin Williams’ rendition of Estragon, Rich observes, “it seems a waste that Mr. Williams rarely stands still long enough to permit his partner to engage him in an intimate exchange;” the key word, “intimate”, the key act, “engage”, the key event, an “exchange.”
The arbitrary agitation at the Mitzi E. Newhouse in 1988 barred intimacy, just like the lathered-up dry humping and pot smoking at the Barrymore in 2013. Each of the three accomplished actors in Betrayal was a creature of the director’s intentions, not the writer’s—dependency on one side, control on the other—a theatrical welfare state.
Truthfully, looking back, I don’t remember one intimate exchange in a text whose only reason to exist is the intimacy of the exchanges it provokes. After all these decades Nichols was again hanging actors out to dry.
So if we want to hand out blame at the Barrymore, I don’t believe it was at all the fault of the actors. Although Daniel Craig might not like to hear it, any 60 seconds of his work as James Bond has more dimension, authority and wit (and engagement with his counterparts) than any moment he was allowed to achieve as Robert. Neither Rachel Weisz nor Rafe Spall had a moment together that would account for their attraction to one another; Jerry, despite his centrality in the play (standing in for Pinter himself in the drame à clef), was an afterthought to Robert, and Robert’s indifference was iterated and reiterated until he became a green thought in a green shade. (We only have to compare David Jones’ casting of Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley in the far more conscientious 1983 film to see how far from Pinter’s shore Nichols marooned these actors.)
Enough said; enough done.
I don’t want to take anything away from anyone’s achievements elsewhere, but there was something so wrong-headed about this mash-up of intentions, something so perverse about the avoidance of the play and falsely promising about the packaging, that I hope another 25 years will pass before a writer, cast, or audience is lured by the promise of past successes, which, as on Wall Street, is clearly no guarantee of future results.