She's young, sexy, and smart; he's older, accomplished, and deeply rooted in a marriage of thirty-some years. And the pressure is on to be something special. As she puts it, "If we don't be our best selves, we're just another old man and his young lover -- we're another cliché."
Honour knows it's a cliché, from the familiar story of a man in midlife leaving his wife for a younger woman because the newcomer "makes him feel alive again" to its white, upper-middle-class milieu. Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith knew her plot was as old as infidelity itself -- theater has been covering this ground since the Greeks -- but decided that in Honour, she would address the cliché head-on by trying to present each character as sympathetically as possible.
Did she succeed? The Berkeley Rep production helmed by Tony Taccone is a mixed bag. On one hand, it's honest, and possessed of a intensely felt breakup scene. But it does have a pronounced slant toward the title character, the wronged wife. It's there in the acting, and it's there in the dialogue. At some point, all three of the other characters -- Honor's husband, her daughter, the other woman -- say something disparaging along the lines of "women like you," meaning an older woman, a woman who has "given up" her life for her husband, a woman who has sacrificed her own skills and dreams on the altar of family life. Murray-Smith was pregnant with her first child when she was commissioned to write the work, and clearly she was thinking hard about what women give up when they become wives and mothers. Honor -- an award-winning poet in her early sixties who stopped writing when her daughter was born -- could be said to be, as her rival Claudia says so dismissively, a "victim of [her] own context."
Yet that is not how the luminous Kathleen Chalfant plays Honor. In a dialogue at the beginning, she raises a spirited defense of the choices she has made -- to go where her husband Gus found work, to put aside poetry in favor of raising a child -- that makes what other people say about her seem empty and contrived. As she explains true and lasting love to the young journalist profiling her husband, her choices seem balanced and rational. "You know the worth of what you're in," she says. "You know how much misery is tolerable." Pushed to talk about the importance of sexual attraction, she opines that "Passion is partly knowing who the other used to be."
Unfortunately, knowing who Honor used to be isn't enough for Gus, who upon meeting Claudia trades English for a goofy, hormonal dialect: "I feel I can't be my best self. I have these huge, huge needs." One almost expects him to say that his wife doesn't understand him, but Murray-Smith spares us anything quite that obvious. Despite the playwright's stated desire that we see how everyone could feel the way they do and not see anyone as a villain, Gus has some real asshole moments, such as when he waxes poetic about his new paramour to the grieving wife he claims to still care about. It's almost as icky as said paramour telling his daughter about the sex: "It's like I'm some kind of sexy little goddess." As Gus, John Doman manages to convey a certain feverishness, but his character simply isn't as dimensional as those of the women battling it out around him.
Because it isn't enough that Gus has left Honor. After an initial sympathetic reaction, their daughter Sophie turns on Honor as well. When Sophie (a fiery Emily Donahoe) demands that Honor fight back, the older woman asks, "What do you want me to do? Cut the arms off all his sweaters?" But then, Sophie gets to say terrible things to everyone; she's the id to her mother's ego. "Is she a good fuck?" she demands of her father. "Look in the mirror; you're an old man." Sophie's dialogue slips awkwardly in and out of the poetic; she has the outlines of her mother's gifts, but not the fullness. She has a hard time finishing sentences, and almost always enters the stage from the audience -- suggesting that she is an outsider to the marriage, a point Claudia jumps on.
Astute as she is, Christa Scott-Reed's Claudia isn't particularly sympathetic until she starts to have second thoughts about her actions. Brittle and predatory, her definition of love as narrow and chilly is clear to the audience -- if not to her hapless swain. Indeed she revels in her cold-bloodedness ("I think it's only fair to tell you I'm not a compassionate person," she boasts). She is brighter than the stereotypical trophy, but it's hard to believe Gus is falling for her mind when she's busy sitting on the counter crossing and uncrossing her long legs under a very short skirt.
As much as it appears to be about infidelity, Honour is also about feminism, and the sensitive question of whether the movement's gains justify some of society's attendant changes. Modern young women, products of feminism's second wave, don't come out of this looking very good. As well as being brave and self-realizing, they're also rigid, mercenary, and self-serving. When Claudia admits to Gus what she believes love to be, it's a fearful thing indeed compared to Honor's interpretation of the same thing. And when Sophie reviles her mother for having chosen to stop working and stay home, she conveniently sidesteps the fact that her mother's choice led to a largely positive result. While the cat-and-mouse game between Gus and Claudia is intellectually interesting and the post-betrayal scenes between Honor and Gus are deeply charged, the most challenging interactions are between the women in their various combinations. "These days we have an awareness," Claudia tells Honor, speaking of the relationships between men and women. "You mean a resentment?" Honor shoots back.
The Rep hasn't really touched infidelity since Dinner with Friends detailed the dissolution of two long-term couples a few years back. That one was more balanced -- the amount of equal time each character got suggested that the playwright had used a stopwatch during the writing process -- but Honour is more delicate and more surprising, and very strong once it gets going.
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