“Perhaps we exploit the past for what the present lacks.” ...
“Are you saying intimacy clouds knowledge?” ... “The young are always unforgiving. That’s part of your charm.”
Such provocative, even leading one-liners and repartees are spoken during Honour, at the Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage. At moments throughout the play, the dialogue seems to be a series of asides, a commentary by the characters on the theme rather than a vehicle (or revelation) of dramatic action.
A triangle is played out between three writers: Gus, a successful journalist (John Doman); Claudia (Christa Scott-Reed), a younger journalist writing a profile on Gus; and Gus’s wife, Honor (Kathleen Chalfant), a poet whose career went on hold years earlier to support Gus’s and raise their now college-age daughter, Sophie (Emily Donahoe).
Claudia openly admires Gus, but is critical of Honor. “These days we have an awareness of what we give up,” Claudia says to her. “You mean a resentment?” counters Honor. The two trade shots verbally and patronize each other across a generational gulf of mutual incomprehension and suspicion.
It’s just that separation that provides the attraction between older man and younger woman. Each has what the other feels is missing from life. He has success, the fruit of ambition and professional experience; she has an insatiable drive, and the thirst for recognition, self-fulfillment.
Honor is caught in the middle. Her agony is intensified into alienation as she’s admonished, scolded, even bullied in different ways by the others over what they take to be her self-denying weakness and complacency. When Sophie declares Honor’s troubles began with her marriage to Gus, Honor admonishes her in turn to try to come to terms with him: “He can stop being my husband, or her lover, but he can never stop being your father. So don’t become me.”
Joanna Murray-Smith, the playwright said she wanted to write “a very familiar, not to say clichéd, story” but “in a way that breathed life.” Clearly, the nuances are the crucial element: “I wanted [the audience to understand] the motivations of all the characters ... to feel how confusing life is ... I find the insufficiencies of ideology endlessly interesting territory.”
Admirable ambition, suited to high drama in the spirit of Euripides, Ibsen, Strindberg and Honour, at moments, especially early on, seems to deliver. This is the territory, in our time, of Pinter and the best of David Mamet.
But Honour droops under the weight of its own ambition, just as Claudia comes to when she tells Honor, “I longed for parents like you ... I wish I could write like you!”
Having created an enviable, talented poet, the script goes from biting one-liners to speeches, finally to sticky impressions of Pinteresque repetitive diction and it gets stickier. Poet-envy is contagious, along with the fear of being “obvious,” and finally the play becomes a wish-fulfillment charm for audience as well as characters—and, presumably, the playwright—to ward off the dread of such “a very familiar, not to say clichéd, story” happening.
As the plot often resembles the adulterous triangle between Faye Dunaway, William Holden and Beatrice Straight in Network, it’s an easy stretch to imagine our heroine in the title role intoning “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
The plot turns over too abruptly for any motivations to be explored. The characters find themselves doing what they comment on. The dialogue, which has wit until breaking down into monologue and skeletal fragment, becomes supertitles, a translation or explanation of the action rather than its coefficient.
The cast, imported from New York, with Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone presiding, puts on a very professional, verbally bright show in front of a Scandinavian Modern set that converts from office to home, backed by a wall of frosted glass subtly alive with tonal lighting effects that bring to mind a poem by David Gitin: “the door/slopes of light/your body/a delay/in glass”—perfect, substantial metaphor—whether in glass and light, or in words—for the evanescent, ineffable emotions around mortality and longing that slip Honour’s grasp.