American audiences haven't seen much of Howard Brenton's harsh social dramas ("Romans in Britain," "Weapons of Happiness," "The Churchill Play"), which are highly regarded in his native Britain. His 1979 chamber play "Sore Throats," in its New York premiere by Theatre for a New Audience, makes a sourly striking introduction to the Brenton style: the bloody-minded language, the flouting of social and dramatic convention, the sure-handed juxtaposition of naturalism and fantasia.
A self-consciously unlovely meditation on marriage and sex, "Sore Throats" starts near the end of a bitter divorce between a pent-up cop, Jack (Bill Camp), and a stay-at-home housewife, Judy (Laila Robins). Their son grown and their marriage stale, Jack has found a new girlfriend whose panties he carries shamelessly in his pocket.
Meeting the shell-shocked, rancorous Judy in a depressingly unfurnished flat (the stark set is by Adam Stockhausen), Jack demands half the value of their house with a mix of pleading and physical violence. It's one of the play's glaringly literalized metaphors: As the uniformed Jack beats Judy to get her to sign a legal document, Brenton wants us to see the coercive power of the state, the political made uncomfortably personal. In case we haven't quite got it, Jack asks rhetorically, "Do you know what makes the world go 'round? Torture."
Not to be outdone, Judy has a flair for spelling out her feelings in colorfully extreme images: She pictures herself with snakes transplanted onto her breasts and a tiger's head where her womb should be. Talk about a femme fatale.
Judy gets a chance to cut loose when a saucy young lodger, Sally (Meredith Zinner), shows up to rent the flat. Together they go on an extended bender of random sex, drugs and untidiness, and by the second act, the apartment is spilling over with drapes, cushions, dishes, graffiti and assorted junk. This is a rejection of stifling bourgeois morality, don't you see? Judy goes so far as destroy a pile of perfectly good money.
Director Evan Yionoulis doesn't do the play any favors by italicizing its violence and free-floating despair. Robins and Camp spend the first act sweating and seething acidly. As pointedly angry as they are with each other, they're even more unhinged in their explosive asides to the audience. This monotonous flaring-up only adds insolence to injury. A dryer, cooler approach might make this raw material both more inviting and more chilling. At least, that's how it seems the way Zinner handles it; her game-for-anything interloper approaches transgression with a casual, comic tang.
Camp's whole-bodied emotional investment pays off in a searing second-act monologue that recounts a rugged, borderline horrific childbirth. This also happens to be Brenton's most sustained, suspenseful writing. "What comes naturally? Nothing does," Jack says. Though Robins does not have a similarly defining moment, she does etch a fiercely sad presence into both sides of Judy: the housewife and the libertine.
If Brenton's "Sore Throats" had more such facets for its actors to explore, it might seem like something other than a shrill shriek of anguish.
Written by Howard Brenton. Directed by Evan Yionoulis. Through May 21 at the Duke Theatre, 229 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. Tickets $60. Call 212-239- 6200. Seen Saturday.