Howard Brenton’s “Sore Throats” is not exactly an enjoyable play, but it’s not a forgettable one, either. In a 26-year-old script only now receiving its Gotham premiere, the Brit scribe takes a brutal swipe at the dream of unconventionality, forcing three characters through the motions of liberation — sexual, economic and otherwise — as they try to escape their middle-class existence. As illicit affairs and spiritual treks through the wilderness prove unsatisfying, however, it turns out that domesticated living has just been a scapegoat. Nothing society offers can mend what is broken inside them.
In a different play — or even a different production of this one — that idea could crush us with hopelessness. But “Sore Throats” finds a stark kind of hope by keeping its focus on the animal need of its characters. These people keep searching for tenderness or peace, and even though we can see their methods are futile, there is something horribly endearing about their refusal to stop lurching along.
The sound of the characters’ persistence could be described as a primal wail. Brenton lets characters locked in vicious arguments or sexual debauchery turn to the audience and reveal painful insight into their actions. When policeman Jack (Bill Camp) beats his wife, Judy (Laila Robins), for instance, he admits he’s failing as a human being. And later, when Judy tries to liberate herself through a life of sexual exploration, she takes quick asides to agonize over why her methods aren’t working.
Thesps — including Meredith Zinner as Judy’s hedonistic flatmate Sally — perform with raw commitment, never flinching from the cruelty or desperation Brenton’s writing requires. Robins, who almost never leaves the stage, guides the ensemble with her incredible focus, needing only her flinty eyes and taut mouth to convey palpable power. Judy seems like the top of a drum, stretched so tightly that the slightest jolt will vibrate through her entire body.
In the most hissable role, Camp elevates Jack beyond the stereotypically evil wife-beater. Jack’s actions aren’t presented as forgivable, but the actor finds clues in Brenton’s script that indicate this man is flailing at everything because he’s afraid of being hurt. A painful final scene — in which Jack must admit a new wife and a new home in Canada didn’t save him — allows the man to crumple so pitifully that he must be seen as more than his sadistic acts.
All this violence and suffering would hurt in a naturalistic setting, but director Evan Yionoulis makes them that much more disturbing by tweaking the tone just a bit beyond reality. Her primary weapons are stillness and silence, and she uses them to create odd separations between confessional moments.
Even when Jack gets an uninterrupted, confessional monologue in act two, Sally and Judy ignore him, lying motionless on a bed with their faces turned away. Such disconnection keeps the production from offering a cathartic purge. Emotions are left choked, which only proves the characters’ inability to liberate themselves.
Yionoulis also finesses the moments of dark comedy that Brenton uses to break up the misery. Bleak laughs emerge from cleverly turned phrases and well-timed reactions, though it’s always the laughter that springs from hell.
The biggest joke is told by Adam Stockhausen’s set. A bare-walled flat in act one, he fills it with bedding and sexually explicit art in act two. Eventually, though, Stockhausen’s well-chosen details — doesn’t every wannabe-bohemian have that corduroy mattress? — sit as mocking reminders that superficial touches do not change our relationship to living.
But we keep trying to evolve. And maybe there is some hope for us yet, if the occasional group of artists can so clearly discern how our efforts can falter.