The title of Howard Brenton’s Sore Throats comes with an intriguing appendage: An Intimate Play in Two Acts. The key word here is intimate because this 1979 divorce drama (in its much belated New York debut) feels anything but that. This is a singularly chilly and uninviting theatrical ordeal. Instead of intimacy, the overwhelming feeling that viewers will likely experience is alienation.
In an empty London flat, a middle-aged couple bicker viciously over the remains of their recently collapsed marriage. Jack (Bill Camp) is a thuggish police officer who’s leaving his wife, Judy (the excellent Laila Robins), a coiled viper of a woman. Over the course of an evening, she verbally abuses him and he responds by delivering several powerful punches to the face and stomach. The play then jumps ahead a year—single Judy has transformed herself into a sexual libertine, frequently bedding younger men and frolicking sapphically with her younger roommate (Meredith Zinner, digging that cockney accent). When Jack makes a surprise return, the couple must reconcile themselves to the limits of each other’s newfound freedoms.
Sore Throats piles one abstraction on another. The characters are gender stereotypes on legs, and the story they inhabit is a mechanical flow chart of midlife meltdown, rebound, and burnout. Further abstracting things is Brenton’s staccato, Pinteresque dialogue, which seems to detach the actors from the very sentiments they’re articulating. (The characters’ frequent asides to the audience are clumsily inserted and fail to offer any insight we don’t already know.) A middle-tier deity in the British theater, Brenton remains somewhat obscure in the U.S., and this play is unlikely to alter his stateside status. Sore Throats contains one scene that provides some perhaps unintentional audience empathy. When a chastened Jack meets the newly liberated Judy, he loudly demands, “What are you?” She coolly replies, “We don’t know but we’re working on it.” And so, we gather, is this eminently baffling production.