In Joanna Murray-Smith’s one-acter, middle-age housewife and formerly prominent poetess Honor (Susan Sullivan) comments to a reporter that there comes a time when reading is more enjoyable than being handcuffed to a bed. Her witty renunciation of sex as a key force in marriage sets the stage for a cleverly written, highly entertaining drama about a man’s desire for a much younger woman and how it destroys his 32-year marriage. This ultrasmooth production, perceptively directed by Andrew J. Robinson, offers so many relevant observations about relationships that it overcomes the lack of sexual fire needed to make its premise fully plausible.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-journalist Gus (Robert Foxworth) is shown being interviewed by 29-year-old Claudia (Kirsten Potter), a beautiful, calculating biographer who eventually leaps past literary language with a randy come-on. This unleashes 59-year-old Gus’ resolve to abandon the chic, elegant Honor and reclaim the lust of his youth.
After acclaimed portrayals of the title role by Jane Alexander (on Broadway), Eileen Atkins (London’s National Theater) and a reading by Meryl Streep at the New York Stage & Film Festival in 1996, Sullivan makes the part her own, turning this version into a personal triumph.
She vividly externalizes a woman’s realization that she has sacrificed her gifts to support her husband’s work, and now must view herself as a totally separate human being. Her transitions — from self-assurance to steadily mounting horror and gradual acceptance — are superbly conveyed. Honor’s dignity is all the more heartbreaking because it’s evident that shattering heartbreak lies beneath it.
Sullivan’s flair for tossing off acerbic lines lends excitement to scenes with her ruthlessly confrontational rival. Fortunately, Potter is a match for Sullivan’s power. More than a phony, silky-sweet Eve Harrington, Potter’s Claudia has startling audacity, accented by Michele K. Short’s clinging jungle-print dress that defines Claudia’s predatory nature. She’s not afraid to be callous and unsympathetic, justifying Gus’ evaluation of her: “You’re a hard little thing, aren’t you?” The sequence where she tells Gus’ daughter, Sophie (Becky Wahlstrom), how wonderful her father is in bed has a wounding viciousness.
Wahlstrom, like her female co-stars, is dynamically talented, and she does everything possible with a part that doesn’t quite work. Sophie is supposed to love her parents, but her attitude toward her mother is too harshly cruel, and her nonstop nastiness to her father could use more shading. She speaks with razor-sharp clarity and bluntness, so her admission to Claudia — “I wish I was more like you. … I’m so inarticulate” — doesn’t ring true.
Portraying the husband wedged between two women, Foxworth (who alternates in the part with Granville Van Dusen) puts forth the right scholarly persona. As he and Sullivan sit comfortably in Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s appropriately conservative set — with beige modern couch and three bookcases — their interaction shows the intellectual compatibility that made the marriage function for more than three decades.
Foxworth also is outstanding when he damns Claudia’s novel with faint praise — “It was … very nice” — stumbling along as his young lover grows incensed at the perceived rejection and responds, “You’re saying I’m obvious.” This moment is particularly resonant, since we see his tepid response will prove fatal to their affair.
Operating on a mental level, Foxworth is excellent. Far less believable is his desire for Claudia. When he tells her, “You have a ravishing mind. … Your way of seeing things is exquisitely idiosyncratic,” it doesn’t stir up enough heat. More physical contact would help, but his approach is too polite and tactful, rather than a representation of newly released sexual hunger.
Murray-Smith’s script is at its best in the scenes involving wronged wife and malevolent mistress. She suggests Claudia’s true admiration and emotional feelings are for Honor, and the play’s most memorable exchange occurs when Claudia asks for Honor’s forgiveness. Sullivan’s reply is a measure of her depth as an actress, her dry answer suggesting multiple levels of inner contempt and sadness: “Don’t make me watch you grow up.”