As I watched the Pearl Theatre Company’s middling revival of A Taste of Honey, British playwright Shelagh Delaney’s once controversial, kitchen-sink dramedy, I couldn’t help recalling Angela Lansbury as Helen in the 1960 Broadway production. There’s a smattering of laughs in the Pearl’s production, but nothing like the raucous outbursts Lansbury, frequently breaking the fourth wall, inspired with her perfect timing and earthy accent. The current production, directed by the ubiquitous Austin Pendleton, while certainly searching for laughs, puts its chips down on the grim side.
Helen (Rachel Botchan) is a flashy, 40-year-old, booze-loving floozy; her latest gent is the one-eyed, obnoxious Peter (Bradford Cover). Helen and Jo (Rebekah Brockman), her drab, illegitimate, 17-year-old daughter, have just occupied dreary digs in Salford, Manchester. Helen and Jo engage in an eternal love-hate relationship. Helen marries Peter and leaves Jo to her own devices. The rebellious Jo (“I’m contemporary . . . I really live at the same time as myself, don’t I?”) takes up with a black sailor, Jimmy (Ade Otukoya), and gets pregnant, but Jimmy sails off forever (“He came in with Christmas and went out with the New Year”).
Jo, who has some drawing talent, gets involved with a gay art student, Geoff (John Evans Reese), who moves in; seeing in her an answer to his own relationship problems, he becomes what Jo sees more like a big sister. Helen, who’s broken up with Peter, returns and kicks Geoff out, only to behave even worse when she learns what color her imminent grandchild will be.
The play’s original London production, directed by the innovative Joan Littlewood in 1958, was so successful it moved to the West End. The Broadway staging, by Tony Richardson and George Devine, like the present one, retained some of Littlewood’s Brechtian innovations, like the moments of speaking directly to the audience and the three-piece jazz band that inserts snippets of familiar tunes into the action, thereby theatricalizing and enlivening what would otherwise be dreary naturalism.
Having the characters burst into song, though, seems a Pendleton idea. His excellent band (Max Boiko, Phil Faconti, and Walter Stinson) begins in the shadows but soon moves into Jo and Helen’s flat, where it sits on the furniture; a few jokes are pried from this distracting arrangement but the guys look as if they’re wondering why they ever signed up for the gig.
When it originally premiered, A Taste of Honey (considered by some part of the “angry young man” movement) gained attention for how accurately its playwright, 19 when she wrote it, thrust an unsentimentally authentic depiction of Lancashire working-class speech and behavior into the world of upper middle-class British theatre; it was also controversial for how well it reflected the roiling social issues that would soon be in the headlines.
Imagine, for example, how shocking it was then to see a slice-of-life play about a white girl with a baby bump created by a black man; or one in which a gay man residing in domestic harmony with a straight woman is treated sympathetically in an otherwise homophobic environment. While some were shocked, the play was lauded for its truthfulness to life, as well as its wit and humanity.
The Pearl production, for which Harry Feiner has provided a sprawling set showing a kitchen and bedroom at one side and a living room at the other, with a well-painted panorama of Manchester on the upstage drop, adequately conveys Delaney’s world but there’s very little about it that’s distinctive. For one thing, the actors’ regional British accents are too notably inconsistent to create a truthful North English atmosphere. For another, despite the energy expended, most of the actors are unable to convincingly embody their roles, making the play’s two hours and twenty minutes feel much longer.
Botchan’s Helen, in an auburn wig and cleavage-revealing dresses, looks the part but pushes so hard the character comes off as overblown and one-dimensional. Brockman’s Jo doesn’t have much chemistry when interacting with Helen, but comes alive in her touching scenes with Reese’s Geoff, the most believable and affecting performance. However, even though she’s meant to contrast with her colorful mother, Jo’s unflattering costumes (by designer Barbara A. Bell) and flattened bob rob her of any physical appeal. Cover’s Peter, as often with this actor, is over-the-top, and Otukoya’s Jimmy is passably charming.
This taste of honey, sad to say, is not a taste much sweeter than wine.
A Taste of Honey
555 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 30
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).