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Sarah Underwood Saviano and Kestrel Leah in Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey at the Odyssey Theatre. (Photo by Enci Box)
Sarah Underwood Saviano and Kestrel Leah in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey at the Odyssey Theatre. (Photo by Enci Box)

A Taste of Honey

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Odyssey Theatre
Through November 27

RECOMMENDED

In 1958, 18-year old Shelagh Delaney saw a production of Terrence Rattigan’s play Variations on a Theme, and was appalled by what she saw. The play had a reputation for boldness in tackling hot-button issues — it dealt with homosexuality, promiscuity, and bisexuality — but in Delaney’s view it was timid and genteel, and pussyfooted around its dangerous themes. She decided she could do better, and in just two weeks she turned out A Taste of Honey, which tackled many of the same ideas head-on. (The fact that the play was written in just two weeks was much publicized, but this was an exaggeration: She simply took a novel she’d been working on and retooled it for the stage. Much of the creative spade-work had already been done.)

Delaney’s unblushing realism, lack of sentimentality, and working class background made it highly controversial, with theatrical bigwigs like Noel Coward dismissing it as “a squalid little piece about squalid and unattractive people,” while for others it was a bit of theatrical fresh air that blew Rattigan’s creations right out of the water. It quickly found its audience and went on to rack up long runs in London’s West End and on Broadway, where the cast included Joan Plowright and Angela Lansbury.

The play tells the tale of 17-year-old Jo (Kestrel Leah), her promiscuous and irresponsible mother Helen (Sarah Underwood Saviano), Helen’s unrepentant bounder of a husband, Peter (Eric Hunicutt), the black sailor Jimmie (Gerard Joseph) Jo falls in love with, and Geoffrey (Leland Montgomery), the gay art student who befriends Jo after her sailor goes off to sea, leaving her unmarried and pregnant. (Delaney rubbed salt in the wounds of social conservatives by making gay Geoffrey the only thoughtful and responsible character in the play.)

The remarkable thing about Delaney’s characters is that they are all sui generis. They are what they are, with all their egocentricities. Delaney made no effort to fit them into a neat structure, or shape them into representative types or symbols.

Jo is young, stubborn and governed by her emotions, her likes and dislikes. She liked Jimmy, but he has left her high and dry. She resents and dislikes her judgmental, manipulative, self-serving mother, and Helen’s new and annoying husband. She needs the responsible Geoffrey, but she doesn’t necessarily like him for it. And Geoffrey warns her that if she isn’t careful, she’ll turn out just like her mother. She hotly denies this, but Geoffrey is usually clear-sighted.

Helen is maternal only when it suits her — and when she needs Jo. When she’s deserted by her new husband, she rediscovers her maternal concern. She moves back in with the girl, and drives away the responsible and caring Geoffrey. But when she discovers that Jo’s baby will be black, she’s appalled and decamps once again, leaving Jo entirely alone. The ending is ambiguous.

Director Kim Rubinstein gives the piece a lively and faithful production, and she has cast it with sensitivity and precision. Leah’s Jo is all confusion and contradictions, buffeted by events beyond her control. And Saviano delivers a wonderfully stylish performance, somehow making Helen appealing despite her appalling behavior. And she also plays a mean saxophone. Hunicutt is appropriately obnoxious as her one-eyed husband. As Jimmie, Gerard is pleasant and charming, but he’s around so briefly that neither we nor Jo can form much of an opinion as to who he really is. And Montgomery’s Geoffrey is tough but caring, affectionate but thorny, refusing to play for cheap sympathy.

Set designer Nephelie Andonyadis provides the handsome abstract set, which seems oddly spacious for a down-market flat.

 

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Wed., 8 p.m., Oct. 19 and Nov. 9 only; Thurs., 8 p.m., Oct. 13 & 27 and Nov. 3 only; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m., except for Nov. 25, when the performance time is 5 p.m. (310) 477-2055, x-2 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com. Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.

 

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