nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 30, 2006
Sore Throats is not an easy play to watch. Playwright Howard Brenton scathingly dissects middle-class domestic life, through characters who are verbally cruel and physically violent toward one another. The play’s view of human relationships is cynical, casting a merciless light on the way money and power warp emotional ties. You wouldn’t want to spend more than five minutes with any of these people. And yet, the play can also be oddly exhilarating, because in their violence and brutality and sordidness, all the characters are striving to break free of conventionality, striving to live a life different from the one that’s making them miserable now. They’re bound to fail; as Brenton writes: “it’s very very dodgy, the search for ecstasy. No wonder millions settle for a nice cup of tea.” And these particular people are perhaps more bound to fail than most—they don’t really have the courage or the strength of character to succeed, and they’re hurting themselves and one another in the struggle—but there’s something noble about their attempts.
The first act takes place in a completely empty flat. The year is 1979. Jack and Judy are recently divorced and have just sold their house. Although the divorce settlement stipulated that Judy, who’s never had a job and went straight from schoolgirl to housewife, would keep the sale proceeds of the house, Jack is having second thoughts. He wants to move to Canada with his young mistress, start over, and he wants Judy to sign a document granting him half the money. When she refuses, he turns violent, and it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t the first time. Jack tortures a signature out of Judy, but before he can escape with his prize, a young woman—a potential subtenant—arrives to view the flat. Against her better judgment, Sally gets drawn into battle, and together the two women are able to bully Jack off.
Fast forward a year. Sally and Judy have been attempting to live a completely hedonistic and domesticity-free life. The flat has descended into chaos and squalor, which they purposefully resist cleaning. They take turns picking up strange men and boys, they’ve traveled a bit, Sally’s quit her receptionist job. But the money is running low, and although Sally is aware that when it runs out, it’s back to answering phones, Judy—who really has nowhere to go once this money’s gone—is tempted to burn or destroy what remains in a final act of defiance. Then Jack shows up, baby carrier in hand, telling the pathos-filled tale of the birth of his child beside a highway in Canada and begging once more for a share of the house-sale money—and it all only gets more vicious after that.
Director Evan Yionoulis and three very fine actors (Laila Robins as Judy, Bill Camp as Jack, and Meredith Zinner as Sally) have given the play a strong, stark production that does not flinch from or attempt to soften the harshness of the writing. Adam Stockhausen’s shallow set forces the actors and audience into close proximity, and Donald Holder’s lighting design features flares of brightness to mark each outburst of violence. The set and Katherine Roth’s costumes visually underscore the thematic contrast between the acts—from the stark emptiness of the flat in Act One to the squalid chaos of Act Two; from Judy’s pristine white skirt set to a tawdry black negligee; from Jack’s policeman’s uniform to washed-out casual clothes.
In a preface to the play, Brenton writes “It is glaringly obvious to your author that the western world is in thrall to a system that respects nothing but money and power… It may not, I am very aware, be glaringly obvious to you, dear reader.” Sore Throats does indeed illustrate human interaction at its most desperately compromised by money and power. Although I tend to agree with Brenton’s point in a general sense, I think the play might actually be more effective if it were somewhat more nuanced; just because the western world at large is wholly motivated by money and power doesn’t mean that more complicated emotions have been evacuated from every exchange between individuals. But the force of Brenton’s writing, and the power of the acting, makes it impossible to look away.