Sore Throats, British playwright Howard Brenton's poetic, violent 1979 drama of divorce and dissipation, is often riveting but ultimately disappointing. With its departures from naturalism and its consciousness-raising heroine, the play is very much a creature of its time. Think An Unmarried Woman (1978) meets Buried Child (also 1978).
Brenton writes "asides" for each character that consist of stylized inner monologue. Director Evan Yionoulis takes this Brechtian device further, adding startling lighting shifts when violence erupts. She has also directed the actors to exaggerate the Pinteresque pauses in Act I and crafts arresting, Kabuki-like stage pictures. A still moment in which Jack (Bill Camp) stares at a pair of pink knickers while Judy (Laila Robins) sits in a daze is mesmerizing. Brenton wants Judy's journey taken to heart, however; the final stage image has her intoning an earnest if ambiguous anthem to her future.
The play opens in a London flat, empty except for a half-drunk bottle of red wine. Judy is sitting on the floor, with a bearded man in a uniform standing behind her. The man is her husband, Jack, who wants money from the sale of their house so he can start a new life in Canada with his mistress. Camp's is a terrifically loathsome portrayal, and the details of the couple's life together are particularly gritty. Judy's inner monologue tells us about a piece of hanging skin on his behind; Jack's complains of her refusal to shave her legs. Aloud she protests the boredom of her married life: "There must be so many women in the city alone in rooms on afternoons. Listening, even beginning to count their own breaths." This war cry sounds dangerously like whining today, despite Robins' touching vulnerability and dignity.
After the shocking encounter between Jack and Judy (Punch and Judy?), a young woman arrives looking for a room to rent. Sally (Meredith Zinner) is young, Cockney, brash, and free -- just what the doctor ordered for Judy. But Act II, which opens in the messy, cluttered, sybaritic apartment they now share (set design by Adam Stockhausen), seems to be from another play. The hedonistic excesses make sense but are dramatically unsatisfying; even Jack's pitiful return fails to fulfill the promises of Act I.
Sore Throats is a compelling piece of theatrical history, and Act I is enthralling. But as a sock to the gut, it is, as Jack describes his own blows, "just a tap."
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience
at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St., NYC.
April 30-May 21. Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 7 p.m. No performances Tue., May 9; Sun., May 14, at 7 p.m.; Sun., May 21, at 7 p.m.
(212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.
Casting by Deborah Brown.