Los Angeles Theater Review: A TASTE OF HONEY (Odyssey Theatre Ensemble)

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by Jason Rohrer on October 9, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles

EAU DE MANCHESTER

Kim Rubinstein’s new Odyssey production treats Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 A Taste of Honey not as a Chippendale museum piece but, smartly, as a serviceable old Sears sectional sofa. Rubinstein tarts up Delaney’s experimental kitchen sinker-cum-jazz cabaret confessional with an abundance of style. These are the basic choices for a director almost sixty years on: straight period recreation OR academic deconstruction OR just a play, directed. It is good to see a play directed. (I look back, not in anger, to see I said something similar about another Rubinstein at the Odyssey, a TV star-studded Anna Christie.) Even when as an audience member I can’t condone every intention, I appreciate it, surrounded as it is by many productions of no apparent intelligence. The second half of the first act is delightful. Honey’s second act has less music and Beckett-lite panache, but the story picks up and the characterizations stay solid.

leland-montgomery-in-a-taste-of-honey-photo-by-enci-boxRubinstein’s theatrical choices don’t all work or all work together, and the show doesn’t begin well. For a long first ten minutes, a working-class slattern (Sarah Underwood Saviano) and her damaged, shrewish daughter (Kestrel Leah) play in two completely separate shows, one a broad comedy, the other a naturalist dirge. A bass player lurks dubiously, half-hidden upstage: is he even on Nephelie Andonyadis’s useful, ugly set? What’s going on?

Then the play’s knocking elbows link as Saviano joins drums and bass on alto saxophone in a surprising, lovely, long and dynamic moment of song and spoken word. The rest of the show is, if not entirely of a piece, very watchable and occasionally very good. It could be a half-hour shorter but a great deal less entertaining in a more reverent take, sans Rubinstein’s hands-on approach.

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From experience Delaney wrote a squalid, honest tale of the bad choices facing women, queers and “coloured boys” in England’s postwar industrial north country. She didn’t like formalism or stodginess, and so she wrote for stage and screen a few thoughtful, feminized, never-faddish versions of the macho realist truisms Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne were turning out in the 50s. I think the socially conscious, occasionally fanciful Mike Leigh owes more to Delaney than to Osborne. Honey sees a young woman through the choices that will likely see her emulate, and just possibly transcend, her mother’s mistakes. The raging naif travails among sweet lovers (Gerard Joseph, who doubles on drums), much-needed mother figures (Leland Montgomery) and temporary despots (Eric Hunicutt) on her way to adulthood.

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Saviano and Leah are frequently excellent, and everybody else is at least working the hell out of the gig. The musicians too are terrific (Armando Wood was bassist at the second Saturday night), and you get to see various and multiple talents. The acting is unified by a fun, free physicality. Some of the actors seem to have been cast for energy rather than fully developed skill set – outside Leah, who grew up in Manchester, the dialects are wildly varied – and I think Rubinstein was right in this. Well-thrown directorial voice outshouts actorly muttering. She keeps the production entertaining by throwing ideas at every moment, and mostly from the same direction.

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The writing is strong for an 18 year old’s first play – it’s sobering to realize that in 1960 London, an obscure hinterlands teenager could see her little sidestreet-debut hit make hay in a 300-performance second production starring Angela Lansbury, Joan Plowright, Nigel Davenport and Billy Dee Williams. But Delaney’s transitions are creaky, and her presentational structures are not uniformly stable. Rubinstein mostly capitalizes when she expands on these with music and movement. If she can’t coach every actor to make the sometimes startling beat changes work, she’s concentrating her energies elsewhere. She has to.

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This production has the usual from-hunger Odyssey constituents, in which performance of necessity supersedes physical plant. Rubinstein has not, this time, the Dr McDreamy budget Kevin McKidd et al. got for Anna Christie. She gets from producer Beth Hogan a big playing space, a game cast, what-have-we-got-in-the-shop set dressing, pleasing costumes (Denise Blasor, with help from the cast), and lighting (Katelan Braymer) that brutally supports tone and time changes. Eden Mullins’ stage management is tight and clean, and the rickety lamps and snarl of upstage cable aren’t her fault.

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The best technical element is Saviano’s arrangement of music and sound, in which the actor/musician/designer takes center stage with such assurance and mastery that, as rarely happens, I enjoyed a show I couldn’t get anywhere but in a theater. In character and on sax, Saviano offers the kind of double-whammy performance you have to work hard to be able to give away. If your kid demands acting school, for God’s sake insist on music lessons into the bargain, or dance, or juggling. Palmistry. Something. Make a show person.

leland-montgomery-and-kestrel-leah-in-a-taste-of-honey-photo-by-enci-boxphotos by Enci Box

A Taste of Honey
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd in West L.A.
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
(check for additional Wed & Thurs performances)
ends on November 27, 2016
for tickets, call 310.477.2055 or visit Odyssey

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