“Honour,” sex, betrayal and confusion
Oh, you wicked playwright, Joanna Murray-Smith. It’s as if you’re trying to provoke arguments among couples leaving the theater.
In Murray-Smith’s Honour, Gus has been dumped by Claudia, the smart young hottie who lured him away from Honor, his wife of 32 years. Gus wants to get back to where he once belonged. He waits expectantly as the play, which Renaissance Theaterworks opened Friday, ends thus:
Honor: “No… it’s too…” [curtain].
Aargh! Too soon? Too late? What?!
Oh, what a smart, wicked comedy of modern manners this is. How beautifully Laura Gordon (Honor), Brian Mani (Gus), Greta Wohlrabe (Claudia) and Karen Estrada (as Sophie, the 24-year-old offspring of Honor and Gus) play it, under Marie Kohler’s direction.
Literary people stand at all three corners of the triangle. Mani is the public intellectual sort of journalist, being feted and honored toward the end of a long career. Claudia is a budding writer with overweening ambition, sent to interview the great man for a book about leading thinkers of the age. Honor was on her way to becoming a celebrated poet, but let her career fade as she settled into the comfort of being Gus’ wife and Sophie’s mother.
Their professions justify their sparkling wit. Especially early, brilliant wordplay rolls off their tongues. Gus and Honor skewer a contemporary who has left his wife for a younger woman. “Why would a man facing death turn to a tanning salon to escape?” Gus says.
Honour sounds rather like 21st-century Noel Coward until Claudia’s aggressive brightness and subtle flirtation turn Gus’ head. The more intense their emotions and the more difficult their situations, the more tongue-tied the characters become. They struggle to articulate the rationales for their feelings and behavior. Gus poses as the voice of reason, but fumbles and bumbles in his attempts to festoon the banality of “I had to follow my heart” with literary and philosophical fol-de-rol. Of course he’s blind to his own folly; if he could see it, he wouldn’t do it.
Such dialogue poses great difficulties of timing and focus, and Mani struck all the right notes and rhythms. Gordon knew just where to inject her minimal responses to keep the scene moving and their voices interlocked. They never became histrionic — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? this isn’t. Instead, they went for an intimate, carefully scaled sort of virtuosity that fit the characters. She reels under the blows. He does what he can to soften them. Just as he backs off, she strikes home with unexpected rapier wit. It stings him, but makes us laugh.
Women’s issues orbit their relationship. The younger women, from different directions, blame the wronged wife and the mother for allowing herself to be subsumed by her husband. The suburban house, outfitted with tasteful Room & Board modernity (well done, set designer Nathan Stuber), the gourmet meals, the amused accommodation she makes for her man, both younger women see as gender surrender. The most moving scene in the show occurs when Estrada accuses her mother in this way and tries to rouse her from pain to anger. Murray-Smith left the jokes out of this one, and not by accident.
Wohlrabe’s skirts are too short and tight and her heels are too high for a journalist on the job (well done, costume designer Holly Payne). But her Claudia is no mere hussy. She’s a smart girl who is unsentimental about getting ahead and will employ all her assets to do so. She sees Gus as a mentor and door-opener, and his articulate sagacity turns her on. She flatters Gus, but also kindles passions in him that he had forgotten. Those passions pack formidable force. We might not approve of Gus’ actions, but we can understand why he does what he does.
How does Joanna Murray-Smith resolve all this? Well… [curtain].
Honour runs through April 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center, with shows at 7:30 p.m. weekdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $36 or $43.50 at the online box office or at the BTC box office, (414) 291-7800.