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It's very easy to mess up a Harold Pinter play. But director Tom McDermott has put together a fine trio of actors and pulls off a terrific, spare, taut production that does the playwright justice. There's a lot of betraying going on here. Jerry and Robert have been best friends for years, but Jerry had a seven-year affair with Robert's wife, Emma. Of course, Robert has been cheating on Emma for years. The affair between Jerry and Emma ended two years ago, but now Robert and Emma are divorcing. The play examines their relationships, and unfolds in reverse à la the 2000 film Memento—the final scene is the inception of Jerry and Emma's love affair.

Marveling at Pinter's brilliance never gets old, and it's refreshing to watch these three actors effortlessly consume his text. Each rises to the challenge of presenting his or her character's complex journey backwards; each possesses the ability to act between each of Pinter's slender, honed lines of dialogue. Stephen Hoye is charismatic, funny, and outright marvelous as Jerry. His drunken lovesick plea for Emma's affection at the end of the play is as stirring as his cold forgetfulness at the beginning. Richard Fancy tackles Robert—the most difficult role, often badly played as a one-dimensional jerk—with intensity and care. Fancy shines when his character intends to expose and hurt, but we also see flashes of great sadness and desperation in many of his quiet moments. As Emma, Suzanne Ford is pitch perfect throughout. She unifies both the passive and active Emma with a longing for something that is just beyond her reach.

The only odd note of the evening is a long table-setting sequence by the Waiter, played by Chris McCabe. It's not part of the play, goes on forever, and doesn't serve any purpose onstage. John Berger provides a nice sparse set, accompanied by quiet, moody lighting and sound, by Eran James and Keith Stevenson, respectively.

While generating lots of laughs, Betrayal makes one think about relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. How often we betray one another, how well we know one another, and what constitutes a breaking of trust are questions that come to mind. Pacific Resident Theatre has a history of challenging itself and its audiences with works from serious authors, and this latest offering is yet another success.

"Betrayal," presented by and at the Pacific Resident Theatre, 7051/2 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Aug. 10-Oct. 5. $20-23.50. (310) 822-8392.

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