Friday, January 27, 2017

YOURS UNFAITHFULLY: Mint Theater Company's Production of A 'New' Old Play Explores Open Marriage

I recently had the long-delayed and therefore unexpected pleasure of publishing a book I co-authored some 35 years previously (Link here, if you are curious)  But now that I've seen the Mint Theater Company's premiere production of Yours Unfaithfully, a play that was written more than 80 years ago, I realize it may not be all that unusual for elongated bouts of patience to pay off eventually.   

The intriguing Yours Unfaithfully was written by a successful British playwright and stage and screen actor, Miles Malleson. You may not know much of his work, but he did appear in a couple of Alfred Hitchcock's films (The 39 Steps and Stage Fright), as well as dozens of other movies between the early 1920s and the 1960s.

Yours Unfaithfully was published but never produced in Malleson's lifetime (he died in 1969), possibly because of its controversial-at-the-time subject matter. The title aptly describes the play's theme, which treats monogamy as a bourgeois concept that is best ignored. The play remained unproduced until now, when the good folks at the Mint rolled up their sleeves and began to work their magic on it.  

Yet, for all its "shocking" stance, Yours Unfaithfully is a fairly conventional play of the drawing room comedy or comedy of manners school. British theatrical wags were puncturing traditional ideas about fidelity well before Malleson took it on, most notably Oscar Wilde ("Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.") and George Bernard Shaw ("Confusing monogamy with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error.")

In Yours Unfaithfully, honesty and the decorum of discretion are prized over fidelity, at least in the marriage of Stephen (Max von Essen) and Anne (Elisabeth Gray). 

In Act I of the three-act play, we learn the couple has been married for eight years and are, frankly, growing tired of one another's company and feeling rather closed in by the ordinariness of their lives. They operate what we're told is a rather successful progressive school, and they talk briefly about their own two children, but it's not enough to fulfill either of them. Stephen, a successful writer, has hit a block that he can't seem to shrug off, and ennui and gloom are threatening to overtake both of them.

To shake things up a bit, Anne encourages Stephen to have an affair with their recently-widowed friend Diana (Mikaela Izquierdo), a notion that he is more than happy to oblige her with. For her part, Diana acquiesces readily, once she has determined that it is with Anne's blessing.  

This kind of "openness" is not a new idea for Anne and Stephen. Both of them had taken lovers in the past, with the complete knowledge and approval of the other. But there is something about Stephen's eagerness to be with Diana that begins to gnaw at Anne, and in Act II she confesses to another of their friends, Alan (Todd Cerveris), that she is, to her surprise and embarrassment, jealous. (That she and Alan previously had carried on a year-long affair doesn't seem to carry much weight of irony in Anne's mind).  

The introduction of a conventional moral compass is actually the new concept that the playwright brings in as he tweaks  the amoral social comedy employed by Messrs. Wilde and Shaw. This twist and where it leads to come as something of a surprise, and it marks a shift in tone to the play. It doesn't entirely leave the realm of the lightweight, but it adds some gravitas to the proceedings. And by the time the blithely self-deluded Stephen understands what is at risk here, we're not entirely sure how things will resolve.  

Apart from some challenges with British accents (overdone in the beginning, and then pretty much set aside later on), the acting, under Jonathan Bank's direction, is of the high quality we've come to expect from the Mint. Max von Essen, a Tony nominee for his featured role in An American in Paris, is excellent as the not-quite-grown-up Stephen, who learns almost too late the price he has to pay for his Peter Pan existence. There is a terrific scene towards the end where we see him up all night anxiously awaiting Anne's return from one of her own amorous adventures. Between von Essen's body language and Xavier Pierce's lighting design, this scene captures everything you need to know about the playwright's intentions without a word being spoken.   

Elisabeth Gray as Anne and Mikaela Izquierdo as Diana both portray women who know what's what and are willing to accept as much of Stephen as they can get. Up to a point.  Todd Cerveris does nicely as Alan, a character whose primary job is to be there to listen to his friends as they unburden themselves. One other character, Stephen's rather sanctimonious clergyman father, is well acted by Stephen Schnetzer, who only recently stepped into the role and carries it off with great aplomb   

Thumbs up, too, to the really terrific costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski and to the set design by Carolyn Mraz.  Do hang around between Act II and Act III to watch the stagehands transform the set.  

All in all, Yours Unfaithfully is another winner for the Mint and for all involved in bringing this hitherto unproduced play to life.     

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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