Friday, October 28, 2016

Theater Review: Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey,’ Presented by the Pearl Theatre Co.

Only three years after James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause depicted the free-floating anxieties and unrest of the American teenager, Shelagh Delaney offered a female answer on the other side of the Atlantic in A Taste of Honey. But, while Dean’s youth feels insular (unwelcome at his new high school, unable to respect a father he regards as emasculated by his mother), the protagonist of Delaney’s play, Jo, steps way out of her comfort zone.

“There's no one like me…and don't you forget it!” Jo tells a new friend. By the end of the play, audiences have no reason to doubt that this curious, intelligent, spirited girl is all of that, and more.

But there is a real question whether Jo will be able to carve out a better life for herself than her 40-year-old mother Helen, who bounces from flat to flat and from lover to lover. The adolescent, following an affair with a black sailor who left town without Jo telling him she’s pregnant, is now facing a future with a biracial child in a racist society, with nobody to depend on and nothing but her wits to live on.

Before sociologists began to speak about “the culture of poverty,” Delaney was, back in 1958, depicting the constricted environment and sometimes self-defeating behavior underlying it—and, remarkably enough, she did this with searing insight in this, her first play, written when she was only 18.

In this production from the Pearl Theatre, scenic designer Harry Feiner gives pictorial life to this dreary environment through a backdrop of crowded houses beneath a gray miasma—strongly suggesting Delaney’s sooty hometown of Salford, an industrial community in northern England, near Manchester. As if that weren’t enough, there is the dialogue (“That river, it’s the colour of lead. Look at the washing, it’s dirty, and look at those filthy children.”)

Wanting to break from everything Helen represents, Jo reaches out to those well outside the accepted norms of the time: to the black sailor, Jimmy (given beguiling life by Ade Otukoya) and, when she elects to go on her own, to Geoffrey, whose gay lifestyle has made him an outcast and nomad and needing companionship and friendship as much as Jo. But relationships are temporary and provisional, and Delaney, while leaving her heroine a margin of hope, also is at pains to demonstrate the odds facing her.

A Taste of Honey was directed with considerable aplomb by Austin Pendleton, who, as I discussed in a post earlier this week, simultaneously guided another British Fifties import to an estimable Off-Broadway run: N.C. Hunter’s A Day by the Sea, from the Mint Theater Co.

While both plays mix drama and comedy, their worldviews, stagecraft and resulting challenges to companies reviving them differ dramatically. Hunter’s characters are primarily the upper-middle-class, speaking naturalistic dialogue, in tones of intensely repressed regret; Delaney’s are working-class, ready with a bitter accusation (“The time to have taken care of me was years ago, when I couldn’t take care of myself," Jo tells her mother) or sharply cynical humor (Jo, again to her mother: “You don't look forty. You look a sort of well-preserved sixty.”)

Hunter’s Chekhovian dramedy bears all the hallmarks of the “well-made play” prevalent to that time; Delaney, on the other hand, with her characters’ alienation and defiance of social norms, belongs to what was sometimes termed the “kitchen sink realistic” movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. As it happened, both writers never achieved the same level of success that they had in the Fifties (though Delaney, who died only five years ago, still turned out the occasional screenplay and radio play well into her sixties--including a 1961 adaptation of A Taste of Honey directed by Tony Richardson and starring Rita Tushingham as Jo).

Delaney’s script has been well-served by a talented quintet of actors. In addition to Otukoya, these include John Evans Reese as Geoffrey; Pearl Theatre vets Rachel Botchan and Bradford Cover as, respectively, Helen and her alcoholic, womanizing lover Peter; and especially Rebekah Brockman as Jo.

Off to the side of the stage (and, at points, even stepping into the action), a trio of musicians play jazz tunes, most notably—what else?—Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey.” It is the same bit of stagecraft employed by the original director of the show, Joan Littlewood, in Great Britain, employing musical shorthand to evoke those who, like Jo, Jimmy and Geoffrey, are beyond category—and certainly beyond the norms of their time.

Delaney's work--even this most famous of them all--does not show up very much in the U.S. these days. Those who haven't seen this production of what is generally deemed her best would be well-advised to catch it before it closes on Sunday.

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