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A Taste of Honey

. . .what's wrong with this place? Everything in it's falling apart it's true, and we've no heating- but there's a lovely view of the gasworks, we share a bathroom with the community and this wallpaper's contemporary. What more do you want. Anyway it'll do for us. Pass me a glass.
— Helen, telling her 17-year-old daughter Jo to make the best of this latest of many grungy apartments that have marked an itinerant existence supported by a parade of Helen's bed partners.
L-R:Rachel Botchan and Rebekah Brockman (Photo: Russ Rowland)
Leave it to director Austin Pendleton to explore the relevancy of two playwriting genres in one season — the well-made, well-mannered, leisurely paced play still at at its peak in the 1950s and the "angry young men" kitchen sink drama that usurped them.

For the Mint Theater the busy Pendleton turned his attention to the former, but instead of reviving something by one of that genre's stars, Terrence Rattigan or Noel Coward, he retrieved the little known N.C. Hunter's Chekhovian flavored A Day By The Sea . That play of and running, at Theater Row, Pendleton moved further west on forty-second street to the Pearl Theater. But instead of a play by one of the best known angry young man playwrights like John Osborne, he's chosen an angry young woman, Shelagh Delaney's Taste of Honey.

Unlike Hunter's play, Taste of Honey was a sensational success and is well-known to this day, mostly courtesy of the classic film adaptation still available on DVD. Still, though it's had its share of revivals (including a 2014 one in London ) it hasn't been seen in New York since the Roundabout Company's 1981 revival.

Delaney gave her play an autobiographical touch by setting it in the working class town of Salford in North West England where she grew up in the 1950s. It's an aptly grim background to depict the fraught relationship between a sensitive but feisty 17-year-old girl and her mother, a non-nurturing "semi-whore" (the quotes indicate Delaney's own description).

The story begins with Helen (Rachel Botchan) and Jo (Rebekah Brockman) settling into the latest of what is clearly the latest of many similarly grim apartments. With the arrival of a swaggering man called Peter (Bradford Cover), the fun and sex loving Helen's pattern of neglect is also repeated. Jo, left to her own devices, has her own fling with a black sailor about to embark on a far away mission. Her being left pregnant establishes the theme of dysfunction as a pattern for society's underclass. The baby being fathered by a black man and the fact that the art student who becomes her friend and caretaker is gay expands the theme to also show the way some prejudices cross the class divide.

If you imagine yourself back in 1959 when dramas tended to be set in drawing rooms and country estates, before gay and interracial marriages were common off and on stage, it's easy to see why Taste of Honey broke new ground. But even a director as capable and well versed in every theatrical style as Mr. Pendleton, can't make this 57-year-old play send even a ripple of shock waves through contemporary audiences who've had plenty of exposure to gritty, working class settings, about inter-racial romances, single mothers and gay men (and Women).

But don't write this revival off as dated just yet. As the rescue mission for A Day by The Sea has pleased the Mint's many fans, so Pendleton's Taste of Honey is worth a trip to the Pearl Theater , which, like the Mint, is one of New York's small Off-Broadway jewels.

What's shocking now is how easy it is to see counterparts to Helen and Jo's story all around us (and make no mistake about it, this is primarily the story of Jo and her mother even though your memories of earlier productions and the movie may be mostly about Jo's friendship with the sensitive young gay man). The many towns where jobs have been lost and drug-triggered problems have resulted in many cases of teens like Jo abandoned to survive on their own; nor has legalized gay marriage or having an African-American in the White house, have erased intolerance.

Under Pendleton's direction the actors have for the most part brought Delaney's characters to refresingly authentic life. Rebekah Brockman deserves top honors for her sensitive portrayal of the lonely teen aged Jo (her father whom she never knew is dead, her mother is wrapped up in her own goo-time focused world). As for the mother, it seems only yesterday that Rachel Botchan was Pearl company's favorite ingenue . But here she is right at home as Helen, the 42-year-old good-time girl. She looks great in Barbara A. Bell's period perfect dresses and hats, and quite effectively mixes vulgarity, careless mothering and her own neediness.

To underscore the difference between mother and daughter, the director keeps young Jo busily bringing some order to the dismal new digs. Of course, despite being more serious and organized than Helen, Jo is soon dangerously headed down the same path with Jimmy, the sailor (Ade Otukoya) who who declares "I want to be your Othello."

' The two somewhat weak links in the ensemble are John Evans Reese and Bradford Cover. Reese keeps the gently supportive Geoffrey somewhat too understated to make a really strong impression. On the other hand, Pearl regular Cover goes overboard on the swagger of Peter, Helen's latest badly chosen boyfriend.

Harry Feiner's dark and grungy apartment is backed with a black and white photographic image of the equally dismal town outside. But, as Jo poignantly says at one point 'It's not the darkness outside - it's the darkness inside houses I can't stand." And it's in the lonely darkness inside that we last find ourselves rooting for her resilience as a survivor.

Mr. Pendleton would have been well advised to tighten the production up a little. However, he has smartly highlighted the musical elements since they further illustrate the play's mother-daughter divide since the music Jo grew up with that her mother still loves is already giving way to a newer, more jazzy sound. And so, now as in the London premiere directed by Joan Littleton, the musicians are right on stage. Not having seen that production I don't know how Littleton used them, but bravo to Pendleton's cleverly not just keeping the terrific trio on the Pearl stage (Guitarist Phil Faconti, Trumpeter Max Bolka and Bassist Walter Stinson) but having them amusingly break the fourth wall several times.

The fourth wall breaking musical business meshes well with Helen's occasionally addressing the audience directly. Clearly a play need not feel hopelessly dated just because it's no longer a game changer.

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A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Cast: Rebekah Brockman as Jo, John Evans Reese as Geoff; Rachel Botchan as Helen, Bradford Cover as Peter, and Ade Otukoya as Jimmy.
Sets: Harry Feiner
Costumes: Barbara A. Bell
Lights: Eric Southern
Sound: Jane Shaw
Dialect Coach: Miriam Silverman
Music Direction: Phil Faconti
Music Supervision: Jane Shaw
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Stage Manager: April Anne Klein
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, plus 1 intermission
Pearl Theatre Company 555 West 42nd Street 212.563.9261
From 9/06/16; opening 9/16/16; closing 10/30/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at Sept.15th press preview

Musicians: Max Bolko (Trumpet), Phil Faconti (Guitar), Walter Stinson (Bass)

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