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|A CurtainUp Review
Another new play has arrived from abroad (Melbourne). Honour, like Art, is an intimate play that clocks in at a fast-paced hour and twenty minutes. As Art isn't really about art, Honour is less about honor than choices which once taken become like the perennial scrambled egg in that they can't be unmade. Jane Alexander, an actress always worth seeing, is the Honor of the title. (but without the English "ou"). Cast in the mold of a woman who might have been the model for the best selling book about strong women and foolish choices, Ms. Alexander displays her usual ability to shift between wry humor, raw pain and furious anger.
I'm honor-bound to report, however, that not even she can help Joanna Murray-Smith's drama to rise to its pretension as an important new play. Not only is it riddled with cliches, albeit in often quite stylish and epigrammatic form, but those cliches are not particularly timely, unique or accurate.
Ms. Alexander's decision to put her acting career on hold for a few years to head the National Endowment was unique and admirable. Wisely, and luckily for us, she limited her public service instead of shelving her career. Honor, her character, is not as wise. She puts her career as a poet, (not would-be, but published), on hold for thirty-two years of helping her husband (Robert Foxworth) reach the top of the journalistic success ladder and to be a full-time mom. Allowing for the fact that Ms. Murray-Smith wrote this play two years ago, Honor's decision to stay on the straight and narrow wife-mommy track, (which she asserts means "more than a Pulitzer . . . more than a top ten in the Times Book Review' "), would have coincided with the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Since her only daughter (Enid Graham) is in her early twenties there were obviously quite a few years without a baby to cut into her time. Add these facts: Gus, while not averse to her help and attention, was clearly attracted as much to her brain and her body . . . their life style is sophisticated enough to pay for a housekeeper which, given Derek McLane's sleekly minimalist house hardly requires more than a once-a-week cleaner to keep the dust balls under control. Put it all together and you can't help thinking that unless Honor's had a severe case of writer's block she surely could have managed another volume of poetry.
So much for the holes in the cliches. What about the way in which the drama is played out. Nothing wrong with the Gerald Guiterrez' direction. It keeps the focus on the play's strength: The neatly strung-together scenes snappily punctuated by Aural Fixation.
Miss Alexander is well supported by the other actors. Laura Linney as her rival and Enid Graham as her impassioned daughter are particularly good at delivering Ms. Murray-Smith's punched up dialogue without allowing the conversations to segue into speeches. The costumes by the indefatigable Jane Greenwood (she's outfitted the casts of five currently running productions) are appropriate enough -- a black not particularly flattering pants suit (to make the usually elegant Ms. Alexander a believable cast aside wife?) and a suit with a handkerchief-length skirt in the de rigueur lipstick red to show off Ms. Linney's sexual irresistibility.
And yet, despite the epigrammatic, Mammetian-Pinteresque nuances of the dialogue, Honour is just an old-fashioned and much told story of a marriage in mid-life crisis. Its style may be thoroughly modern, but the cobwebs of familiarity becloud its substance. Gus, the husband , needs a young sexy woman to get a new lease on his libido. She arrives conveniently in the guise of a young writer (Linney) who is interviewing him for a book about important journalists. That leaves Honor as the betrayed wife. Being an intelligent and strong woman, she gets back in touch with the talent she betrayed (or, if you will, dishonored) to continue on without Gus as her security blanket.
The two somewhat new twists are provided by the All About Eve home wrecker Claudia and the daughter Sophie. Claudia who would never give up her aspirations to be a helpmate style wife nevertheless needs the security of a partnership career (shades of Hillary Clinton?). In a confrontation with Honor, one of the play's best scenes, she declares "I'm rectifying your sacrifices." Yet this blatantly self-righteous lack of sensitivity notwithstanding she -- surprise, surprise -- turns out to have a conscience. Daughter Sophie, though steeped in women's studies can feel strong only inside the love that she perceived in her parents. Enid Graham makes the most of the few scenes given her to display her rage and despair at having this love exposed as a myth.
If all this sounds as if the women's characters have the best scenes, they do. Poor Robert Foxworth who as the convincingly misanthropic uncle in Ivanov (also directed by Mr. Guiterrez and reviewed by CurtainUp ) went out into society because he needed "new people to despise" is here trapped by his menopausal lust and after-the-fling regrets. Except for one funny scene where he tries to tactfully analyze Claudia' obviously mediocre writing he is also saddled with the play's most forgettable lines. At one point, when he resorts to the familiar dishonorable husband's line about having done all the work to earn the assets he and Honor are about to share, numerous audience members could be heard to literally bristle with a derisive mix of moans and laughter.
I suppose there's nothing wrong in re-exploring the effect of the tide of social changes on relationships. There's considerable validity in the contagiousness of restlessness in friends' marriages. (It is such a marital disturbance that portends the betrayal of Honor's thirty years of devotion). There's also the endurance of popular magazine features such as C"an this marriage be saved?" which has outlasted the marriage of Gus and Honor. The problem is that we expect more from a play. Hopefully the promise that's brought Miss Murray-Smith's work to Broadway will be fulfilled in her next effort.
LINKS OF INTEREST
CurtainUp interview with set designer Derek McLane