As we’ve been reminded in rather spectacular fashion by the David Petraeus scandal, marital infidelity is one of the oldest, most durable stories there is. Only the names change.
The twist Harold Pinter added to that venerable story in 1978’s “Betrayal,’’ of course, was to tell it backward, employing reverse chronology to delineate the unspooling of a seven-year affair between a married woman and her husband’s best friend, also married.
When in the hands of the right director — such as Maria Aitken, who worked with Pinter in the 1970s and is now at the helm of a precisely detailed Huntington Theatre Company production — the play’s backward-moving narrative casts a refracted, subtly illuminating light on scenes whose full meaning might otherwise escape our notice.
For instance: When Jerry (Alan Cox) bluntly tells Emma (Gretchen Egolf) that the flat they’ve taken for their assignations “could never . . . actually be a home,’’ Emma reacts with a stricken look and a sudden intake of breath. That fraught word surfaces again, with an extra edge of poignancy, in a scene in the same flat two years earlier. “Do you still like it?’’ Emma blithely asks Jerry. “Our home?’’ Equally telling is Jerry’s blandly ambiguous response: “It’s marvelous not to have a telephone.’’
Words not just spoken but unspoken matter greatly in “Betrayal,’’ as in most of this Nobel laureate’s work. Aitken resists any temptation to overdo those famed Pinter pauses, but plenty happens between the lines of this “Betrayal.’’ Allen Moyer’s sets are handsome — a pub with red-leather banquettes, a study rimmed by low-slung bookcases, a flat whose furnishings are trimmed in golden colors — but the designer leaves plenty of wide-open spaces onstage. A sky-
blue backdrop makes the characters seem isolated and remote from the wider world, which they are, emotionally speaking.
The time frame extends from 1977, two years after the affair between Emma and Jerry ends, to 1968, when it begins with a drunken overture by Jerry during a party in the home Emma shares with her husband, Robert (Mark H. Dold).
They are a cultured trio: Emma runs an art gallery, Jerry is a literary agent, and Robert is a publisher. Their shared history, personal and professional, is apparent in their frequent allusions to unseen characters: Jerry’s wife, Judith; the couples’ children; some authors whom Jerry represents. Robert is constantly after Jerry to join him in a game of squash, which never happens.
Aitken, who has done stellar work for the Huntington in “Private Lives,’’ “Educating Rita,’’ and “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,’’ demonstrates a sure touch with the very different tone of “Betrayal.’’ Even though the play begins at the end, or rather in the aftermath, she builds an atmosphere of quiet tension as Emma and Jerry navigate, or blunder through, an intricate web of secrets and lies. It’s a subterfuge that will collapse with one wrong move, charged with an undercurrent of questions about who knew what and when.
Egolf’s Emma is a finely drawn portrait of a woman whose carefully composed, in-control exterior conceals a desire to roll the dice once and for all, to get out of her marriage and start afresh with Jerry. But she can only phrase that desire in the most guarded terms. “Tell me . . . have you ever thought . . . of changing your life?’’ she asks Jerry at one point, only to hear this reply: “It’s impossible.’’
Cox is more persuasive in Jerry’s equivocal or evasive moments than in his declarations of love, but then a certain ambivalence underlies even the passion of “Betrayal.’’ It is Dold who brings to the drama that aura of ticking menace we associate with Pinter. With his slicked-back hair, watchful eyes, and clipped delivery, Robert seems always to be keeping something in, but just barely. His elliptical utterances hum with subtext. Dold skillfully handles the moment when husbandly suspicion turns to knowledge, then to rage, half-hissing, half-shouting “Sorry?’’ when Emma apologizes for the affair.
Four years after Pinter’s death, one watches “Betrayal’’ with an appreciation for the playwright’s astuteness about the offhand, almost accidental ways that relationships can begin and end. The affair between Emma and Jerry ultimately dissolves with neither of them directly saying it’s over. Instead, they discuss how to dispose of the flat’s furniture. You get the sense that both of them, from that point on, will have trouble finding a place to call home.