Meredith Zinner and Laila Robins in Sore Throats(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Meredith Zinner and Laila Robins in Sore Throats
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Bushwah and poppycock -- or, as some of the randier British might say, bollocks! Howard Brenton had me in his corner with the first act of his 1979 play Sore Throats, despite its rather arch sensibility. But he lost me completely in Act II and may have even flummoxed his three actors, who, at the performance I attended, took their bows with what looked like "Did you really go for that?" expressions on their faces.

Since I hadn't seen the play when it was first presented in London -- it has never before been produced in New York, for reasons that seem obvious -- I can't say with certainty that, 27 years ago, I wouldn't have enjoyed its chutzpah from start to finish. Still, I'd like to think that I wouldn't have considered the wholesale brutality, childish debauchery, and wide-ranging vocabulary of the piece bold and fascinating but, instead, would have found it as pretentious and ultimately foolish then as I do now. Brenton's striving to be Ingmar Bergman-probing and August Strindberg-unflinching marks an overreaching young playwright aiming his arrows at the sun and breaking his bow in the process.

Believe me, I have nothing against Brenton. Indeed, I've admired his work as recently as January, when I saw his recent biblical drama Paul, in which he takes on the Da Vinci Code idea of Jesus and Mary Magdalene living in marital though scatological bliss. (As far as I know, Holy Blood, Holy Grail authors Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent aren't suing Brenton.) In writing Paul, Brenton compellingly imagined the Damascus Road moment when, in the disciple Paul's estimation, Jesus the man became Jesus the God. The playwright was also impressively serious-minded when, in 1985, he and David Hare collaborated on their Rubert Murdoch send-up, Pravda.

Giving Brenton the benefit of the doubt with Sore Throats, one might say that he's also examining something substantive here but failed to realize his intentions. He's concerned with the war between the sexes and how it produces no victors, only dazed victims. When the lights go up on Judy (Laila Robins) and Jack (Bill Camp) in the empty apartment that Judy has taken after the pair has separated, she's on the floor and he's hovering over her in his policeman's uniform. (Adam Stockhausen's set, with its mottled white walls and soiled molding and baseboards, is barren enough to make a grown man weep. Don Holder lights it with matching grimness.) When Judy utters her first word, "Celia," in reference to Jack's new honey, the rancor that the pair shares is established and immediately picks up at a blistering pace.

There's something overblown in the language that the combative exes use with one another, but it's difficult to dismiss it as Jack attempt to talk Judy out of the 15,000 pounds she's getting for the sale of the home they shared. Eventually, Jack becomes physically abusive to a very graphic extent. It's difficult to avert one's eyes as Brenton makes us feel less like spectators at a play than voyeurs at a grimy window. His dim view of the prospects for serene man-woman relationships is cynically narrow, and he presents it in an over-the-top manner, but he and director Evan Yionoulis nonetheless manage to sell it. So do the determined Robins and Camp.

Although savvy theatergoers will intuit that Brenton is going to go in an entirely different direction in Act II, they may not be prepared for the direction he takes: straight down. Judy and her new roommate Sally (Meredith Zinner), who had made an appearance late in Act I, have turned the previously empty flat into a makeshift brothel. Their idea of liberation, it seems, is to seduce 14-year-old boys on the many mattresses and cushions they've strewn carelessly about. Jack returns to this den of silliness with, apparently, the baby he and the never-seen Celia produced in Canada. Nothing else of note happens in this act, which sorely tries one's patience; whatever Brenton wants to declare about the impoverished existence resulting from man's inhumanity to woman evaporates.

This is not because the actors don't try their damndest. Laila Robins, who from some angles is Garbo-esque and from others is Dietrich-like, throws her self into the role of the punched Judy. (Is this Brenton's joke? If so, it's not hardee-har-har funny.) The actress seems ready to take it all -- the bloodied mouth, etc. -- and then change into the ruffled see-through number that costume designer Katherine Roth has provided for her so she can gad about like a tramp. As the cruel Jack, stocky and craggy Bill Camp is fierce in the first act and frightened in the second. He uses his bass/baritone voice effectively in the exterior and interior monologues that Brenton regularly tosses him. Finally, Meredith Zimmer has the right good-time-girl quality for Sally.

The title of the play is a reference to a Bertolt Brecht quote that goes, "I have heard that love-making can give you a swollen throat. I don't want one." It's the closest to Brecht or any first-rate playwright that Brenton gets in this highly problematic work.