The basic trouble with Joanna Murray-Smith's "Honour," which opened last night at the Belasco Theater, seems to be that it is rather like an agony column set to dialogue. Admittedly, the dialogue itself is bright, brittle and often showy, yet it lacks depth and substance. And the subject matter is familiar beyond the point of cliche.
Now, no play that brings Jane Alexander back home to the theater, after her much-valued stint in governmental administration, can fail to have something going for it, but this skin-deep adventure into the problems of male menopause and masculine mid-life crisis, while demonstrating her skills, hardly either taxes or extends them.
Gus (Robert Foxworth) is an incredibly pompous, self-styled intellectual newspaper columnist who has been married to Honor (Alexander) for 32 years. Honor once had a lively reputation as a poet, but on marriage virtually sacrificed her career to the needs of Gus and their now college-age daughter Sophie (Enid Graham).
Into this picture steps Claudia (Laura Linney), a 20-something opportunist who is interviewing Gus for a book profiling 10 writers, to be called "Genius in Journalism." Gus is flattered. As he at one point remarks to Claudia: "You have a ravishing mind."
In fact, Claudia's mind is one of the less ravishing things about her, but ravishment is indeed quite clearly on her agenda, and the bewitched Gus is readily ravished.
Soon he is teaching the apparently adoring Claudia the difference between "realism" and "naturalism," telling her about existentialism and the Cold War, while admitting that even he knows little about outer space.
The writing is glossy but glib. It is full of pseudo-epigrams such as: "What is it about facing death that sends a man to a tanning salon?" and phrases like: "The wit that touched charisma but in the end failed to claim it," which sounds good to goodish but cannot face even instant examination.
For all this, Murray-Smith has the gift of gab and can construct a cohesive pattern of short scenes, hardly more than telling encounters, which push the story along effectively enough.
Unfortunately, the story itself - even when its glitzy take on wit and wisdom eventually peters out into almost Pinteresque pauses of regret - is not sharp enough, fresh enough or illuminating enough to be worth the perhaps commendably brief traffic (100 minutes, no intermission) of this stage.
Unquestionably the best moments are those between the women, both between wife and mistress and daughter and mistress, but even here a certain stale and predictable theatricality resolutely refuses to budge.
The director, Gerald Gutierrez, doesn't help all that much by letting the play's dialogue, particularly in the early scenes, practically run out of control, as if he were afeared that anyone might pay it too much thoughtful attention.
Nor does the setting by the fine designer Derek McLane assist overmuch, for while it is very attractive in itself, it gives the impression that the entire play is being acted in the hallway of the journalist's house.
Foxworth has the weakest role and, probably understandably, offers the weakest performance, putting up only token resistance to the stereotype into which both play and director seem anxious to embalm him.
The women fare better. Linney, in the easiest part of an ambitious, ruthless, vain young women on the make - as subject to flattery as she is prone to flattering - is properly charming, brusque and efficient. She is appropriately dressed throughout - by Jane Greenwood - in short skirts and fire-engine scarlet.
Graham, in the play's most original role of the New Age daughter, also does well, but the play's value is chiefly the lambent, aware and passionate performance given by Alexander.
Admirably revealing grace under pressure and a reality of heartbreak, she comes closest to achieving what the play itself - what was that phrase? - "touches but in the end fails to claim."
A quarter-century ago, that fine American actress Jane Alexander could be found on Broadway in a new English play about infidelity called ''Find Your Way Home.'' She had been given the role of a middle-class housewife who is all but annihilated when her husband walks out on her, and who keeps wondering why, why. A rather thankless part, but Ms. Alexander acquitted herself with the measured grace, wit and emotional substance that audiences had already come to expect of her.
Much has happened in the intervening years to Ms. Alexander, who has taken on not only an assortment of cool, complex portrayals of women under various forms of siege but also, in real life, the beleaguered role of chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a post she held from 1993 until last October. Now she can be found again on Broadway in, as it happens, a new Australian play about infidelity called ''Honour.'' She has been given the role of a middle-class housewife who is all but annihilated when her husband walks out on her, and who keeps wondering why, why.
Age has not dimmed Ms. Alexander's sterling professionalism nor her subtle but lucid gifts for conveying ambivalence. But when in the leading role of Joanna Murray-Smith's short, streamlined drama, Ms. Alexander registers disgusted astonishment when her character's husband announces their marriage is over, it's tempting to surmise that this is how the actress feels too. ''Oh, no,'' you imagine her thinking. ''Haven't I been this way too many times before?''
This is mere projection, of course. Ms. Alexander would never distance herself from a part in that way. But there's no escaping the pall of familiarity that hangs over the evening like the smell of mothballs. There are always revelatory new ways to reconfigure the eternal triangle. One thinks of Harold Pinter's exquisite ''Betrayal.'' Even John Hopkins's ''Find Your Way Home,'' although hardly a perfect play, featured something then novel: a husband leaving his wife for another man.
But ''Honour,'' which opened last night at the Belasco Theater under the assured but static direction of Gerald Guttierez, seems determined to present the story of the damage wrought by a man torn between two women in its most archetypal terms, a feeling compounded by Derek McLane's elegant but anonymous-looking set.
The play is not inarticulate. It features some well-turned phrases, and it is considerately brief. But its four characters never assume much life beyond their emblematic status as figures in a well-worn social debate. And the work's prose, while gussied up with the splintered speech and repetitions David Mamet made famous, often feels like the considered position statements in symposiums transcribed in women's magazines like Mirabella.
The plot, related in quick, elliptical two-character scenes, brings to mind films like Paul Mazursky's ''Unmarried Woman'' (1978), not to mention the sort of made-for-television movies routinely shown on the Lifetime channel. There's even a glimmer of the revenge fantasy, in giving Ms. Alexander the withering last word, exploited with such flash in ''The First Wives Club.''
Gus (Robert Foxworth), a celebrated newspaper columnist in his 50's, has been married to Honor (Ms. Alexander), a once-celebrated poet who has put her career on hold, for 32 years. (Just so you know, there is Honor the character and ''Honour'' the title.) The couple are a tad smug, in their urbane, literate way, in their domestic ease with each other, even making fun of a friend who has suddenly started dating a much younger woman. ''What is it about facing death that makes a man turn to a tanning salon?'' Gus asks rhetorically.
Did you hear the ominous rumble of irony? Sure enough, Gus has soon walked out on Honor to take up with Claudia (Laura Linney), an ambitious blond journalist who wears thigh-grazing suits in fire-engine red. Gus and Honor's daughter, Sophie (Enid Graham), feeling the only security in life has been destroyed, returns to hurl accusations. And Honor, who sees life as an ongoing compromise, and Claudia, a hell-bent-for-success type who happily admits she is without compassion, are forced to assess the generational distance between them.
The performances are all solid within the limits of the generic parts. Ms. Alexander again shows her affecting ability to convey the surprise of pain in a woman doing her best to suppress it. Mr. Foxworth, in the evening's most cartoonish role, uses his sonorous voice to project shades of middle-aged masculine fatuity.
Ms. Linney, in a variation on the post-feminist vampire played by Elizabeth Marvel in Wendy Wasserstein's ''American Daughter,'' is more strident than she needs to be but improves when doubts finally visit the confident Claudia. The real find of the production, however, is Ms. Graham, making her Broadway debut, who brings a genuinely searing sense of betrayal to Sophie's confusion. She also seems the most at home with the often gratuitous Mametesque echolalia that is woven throughout the script.
Like two other (and superior) current Broadway productions, ''Art'' and ''The Old Neighborhood,'' ''Honour'' is a bare-bones anatomy of shifting relationships, delivered in roughly 90 minutes. But even a short road of a play needs its crooks of unpredictability. This one is as straight and conventionally stocked as a supermarket aisle.
"I can't live without passion," says a character in "Honour," but the cri de coeur doesn't quite ring true: For a play whose subject is the sexual and emotional fires whose waxing and waning can create love and destroy it, "Honour" is a curiously dispassionate affair. It's stylishly mounted and tirelessly clever, but it's exhaustingly written. You may feel you've spent the play's brief running time on a sort of intellectual Stairmaster, panting to keep up with all the smart talk. Andwhen you get off, you may wonder if all that schvitzing was worth it.
Joanna Murray-Smith's play is the trophy-wife story dressed up in highbrow drag, a tale whose essentials are of the tabloid-beloved Donald-meets-Marla, Donald-dumps-Ivana, Marla-dumps-Donald variety. In this case, the Donald is Gus Spencer (Robert Foxworth), a hotshot intellectual New York newspaper columnist married for 32 years to Honor (a woman played by Jane Alexander, and not to be confused with the concept of the title, which has bought an extra vowel somewhere, presumably in Australia, whence Murray-Smith hails). Honor the woman is a poet whose bright young career was allowed to wither into insignificance when their daughter, Sophie, was born shortly after their marriage.
Into their placid world springs an ambitious young writer, Claudia (Laura Linney), whose voraciousness is symbolized, in the play's chic, schematic manner , by her fire-engine-red miniskirt, heels and lush lips. The literary grad student has come to profile Gus for a book on "genius in journalism," but it's his marriage she proceeds nimbly to deconstruct.
In a trice, Gus is enacting in his own life the same "male cliche" he'd joined Honor in mocking two scenes before, as he announces he's fallen in love with Claudia, age 29, and is leaving Honor, lickety-split. And Honor's burden gets heavier: To the humiliation of her husband's departure is added the chore of endlessly discussing it. Both Claudia and Sophie (Enid Graham) descend upon Honor with feminist reprimands, accusing her of orchestrating her own misfortune by giving up her career as a poet; wasn't it the poet, after all, that Gus loved?
Murray-Smith can certainly turn an intelligent phrase. "Honour" is full of interesting ideas tied up in neat little linguistic packages: "We exploit the past for what the present lacks," says Gus, describing the way a couple's history may be used to shore up its future. "In youth, wishing has the same currency as doing does in middle age," he assures Claudia, who's mildly ashamed of her big dreams. "What is loyalty but resistance to change?" snaps Claudia when Honor champions fidelity. Small talk, for these folks, is exclusively aphoristic.
But Gus' criticism of Claudia's writing's "over-clarity" may be applied to the play itself, though it's far from obvious. The play is so busy examining the mechanics of its characters' emotions that their essence slips from its grasp. The characters talk with such endless eloquence about their feelings that you begin to wonder when they have time to feel them.
The actors must struggle through the admittedly scintillating verbiage to land a hold on our hearts, and are only sporadically successful. There is grace in the way Alexander --- no stranger to courage under fire after four years in Washington --- maintains the plucky dignity of Honor, allowing a few moments of frailty to speak volumes. Not incidentally, her single most affecting moment is the rare occasion when pragmatic concerns impinge on the play's cerebral world, when Honor suddenly awakens, with a heart-rending tremor both vocal and physical , to the realization that with her husband's departure, her very life --- her sustenance --- is now in jeopardy.
Linney brings a bright sheen to her performance, and makes convincing Claudia's quicksilver progression from take-no-prisoners vixen to a young woman suddenly and disturbingly alive to the gravity of the betrayal she has inspired. Foxworth is amusing and occasionally more as the egotistical male in full middle-aged flower, and Graham has some sharply engaging moments as the prickly Sophie. But all the actors suffer somewhat from Murray-Smith's elaborate writing; with all the subtext brought to the surface and keenly articulated, there's little else for them to play.
"Honour" is handsomely staged by Gerald Gutierrez in a slightly stylized manner, and moves forward in short, sharply punctuated scenes divided by brief bursts of percussion. There is elegance in its movement that matches the elegance of its language.
Derek McLane's set is an all-white distillation of a Manhattan apartment, with a set of ossified-looking books seen through an archway. But costume designer Jane Greenwood seems to have been somewhat hampered by the play's air of abstraction: After four years of fighting valiantly to save the scraps of the NEA from politicians' butcher knives, it would be nice if Alexander might have returned to the Broadway stage in something other than the startlingly unflattering black smock she's been given. The play's neat exigencies seem to require that Honor be the physical epitome of the aging first wife: frumpy ensemble, granny glasses, gray hair. Mightn't a poet, even one named Honor, stoop to a little hair dye, a contact lens, a Chanel suit?
Not in Murray-Smith's world. Honor speaks of "loving words more than people," and she might be speaking for the play itself. Its words and ideas are often engaging and carefully arrayed, but its characters get lost among them. They become brightly colored mouthpieces for the author's brilliance --- ultimately, mere shadows.