Review

L.A. revival of 'A Taste of Honey,' the 1958 play that dared to make a gay character its moral center

Kim Rubinstein, who directed a highly praised revival of “Anna Christie” at the Odyssey Theatre last year, is back with a revival of Shelagh Delaney’s once scandalous, now slightly quaint 1958 play “A Taste of Honey.”   

Delaney was only 18 when a production of Terence Rattigan’s “Variations on a Theme,” which she found phony and coy in its portrayal of homosexuality, provoked a blaze of indignation. She set out to write about how real people lived and spoke, at least in her gritty hometown of Salford, part of Greater Manchester, England.

In “A Taste of Honey,”  the teenage girl Jo (played by Kestrel Leah at the Odyssey) is abandoned by her trampy mother, Helen (Sarah Underwood Saviano). Jo has an affair with a black sailor, Jimmie (Gerard Joseph), who leaves her pregnant, then befriends a gay art student, Geoff (Leland Montgomery), who plans to help her raise the baby — until Helen returns and sends him packing. In an especially iconoclastic touch for the era, Delaney made the homosexual character not a running gag but the moral compass, the only admirable person onstage.

The play’s nonchalant attitude to its subject matter may have been its most shocking quality. The caustic, unsentimental dialogue suggests that while the characters aren’t thrilled with their circumstances, they’re not expecting anything better. In this universe without love or hope, they take pleasure in expressing their existential misery with style and economy.

“Will you stop shouting?” Geoff asks Helen and Jo during a fight. “We enjoy it,” retorts Helen. (Delaney had seen, and admired, “Waiting for Godot.”)

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“Honey” proved a sensation in London, went on to a Broadway run starring Joan Plowright and Angela Lansbury, was adapted into a film, and influenced a generation of artists. Novelist Jeannette Winterson and singer-songwriter Morrissey have both claimed allegiance. 

But outside its original context, in the world it helped to change, can “A Taste of Honey” still live? At the Odyssey, at least, not quite. Weaknesses in a script are naturally more apparent to an audience not about to faint from shock, and this production seems to draw particular attention to the play’s shortcomings.

Delaney mixes a bit of halfhearted meta-theatricality into her kitchen-sink realism. Helen sometimes addresses the audience, and at one point, she asks the orchestra to “vamp it in” when she’s singing a song. So Rubinstein has placed an upright bass player and a keyboard right on the set, lurking in a corner, and even added a saxophone solo to Helen’s performance (Saviano can really play the saxophone). There are several other surreal touches, just infrequent enough to be confusing.

The large but poorly defined set and some odd staging point up Delaney’s inattention to logistics. Shortly after Helen and Jo have moved into their flat, Helen’s young lover, Peter (Eric Hunicutt), sort of appears in the room with them, without knocking or coming through a door. To smooth this transition, Rubinstein has him enter the theater from the lobby, walk a few paces in front of the set, then turn onto it as if through a doorway. The awkward pantomime not only suggests that the women’s flat is open to the street but it also further emphasizes how clumsily the character of Peter — a pure plot device — functions in the story.

Finally, the play’s tone, so regionally specific, is a real challenge. It’s not just a question of the accent — which Leah, who is from Manchester, does more persuasively than the rest of the cast. In the film, there’s an understated humor to the continual bickering, and a spiky affection behind the insults, which Rubinstein and the performers don’t quite capture here. Jo, ostensibly the heroine, comes across as whiny and self-pitying. Helen, though the villain, is a lot more entertaining, especially with that saxophone.

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‘A Taste of Honey’ 

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (also 8 p.m. some Wednesdays and Thursdays); ends Nov. 27

Tickets: $25-$34

Info: (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2, or www.OdysseyTheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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