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Written by Harold Pinter Directed by Daniel Brooks Starring Susan Coyne, Albert Schultz and Diego Matamoros At Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre Rating: **½

A Canadian interviewer once asked Harold Pinter to rate the commercial chances in North America of Betrayal, the British dramatist's own screen adaptation of his 1978 stage play about the eternal triangle.

"I take it they still have adultery in North America?" he drily replied.

Seventeen years after the 1983 Jeremy Irons-Ben Kingsley film, they have yet to abolish adultery on either side of the Atlantic, so Toronto director Daniel Brooks can stage a new production of Betrayal with Canadian accents. On the stage of the Premiere Dance Theatre, the Soulpepper Theatre Company faithfully reproduces the references to Hampstead, Oxbridge and the "pip pip pip" sound of British pay phones, but actors Susan Coyne, Albert Schultz and Diego Matamoros speak as though they lived in Cabbagetown rather than Kensington.

It's a sound idea in theory -- the play's themes are universal, don't you see? -- but would be much more convincing in practice if Brooks had drawn performances that did justice to the language whatever the accent. Unfortunately, this trio's grasp of the play's tightly wrought dialogue is unreliable.

The script is a work of breathtaking craftsmanship, imbuing a familiar tale of love, deception and discovery with fathoms of emotional murk beneath its gently rippling surface of seemingly banal language. The outcome of Jerry's seven-year relationship with Emma, the wife of his best friend Robert, is never in doubt: In the play's most famous device, Pinter begins two years after the end of the affair and works his way back through the years to the day the illicit lovers first declared their passion. The suspense lies not in the progress of the affair or the risk of discovery but rather in the crackling gap between the triangle's words and its reality.

Brooks, however, does not create the necessary tension. As always with his sophisticated work, the production looks smart, simply staged and starkly lit by designers John Thompson and Andrea Lundy, with clever musical bridges provided by Richard Feren, but the director fails to enliven his cool show with a warm understanding of the play's themes. The production is a particular disappointment after his humane handling of Samuel Beckett's Endgame on the same stage last year.

Of the three actors, only Matamoros captures the gap between language and meaning, creating in the cuckolded Robert a figure of dessicated wit who is both funny and quietly frightening. The scene on a Venice holiday where he interrogates his wife with deceptive good will about a letter she has received is the most effective here. Coyne can't match him, however, and if the hauteur she imparts to Emma can be read initially as a kind of necessary emotional disengagement to survive her double life, it increasingly seems nothing except flat.

One can only hope that as this three-way co-production moves to Ottawa's National Arts Centre and then Montreal's Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts, the actress will participate more fully in the action.

As the philandering Jerry, Schultz offers the requisite rumbled charm but never manages to find a way of speaking the clipped and elliptical dialogue in a way that sounds natural.

Yet this is, in fact, one of Pinter's most naturalistic plays, in which the famous pauses, overlaps and repetitions appear here as the hallmarks of normal conversation. Perhaps Schultz would find the lines tripped more easily off the tongue if he adopted some kind of accent. At Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre to Sept. 30 (416-973-4000); at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, Oct. 10-21 and at Montreal's Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts, Oct. 30-Nov. 26.

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