Tuesday, September 22, 2015

THE NEW MORALITY: Lost Comedy from 1911 Is Burnished to a Gleam in Mint Theater Production

Michael Frederick and Brenda Meany
Photo by Richard Termine

The Mint Theater Company is dedicated to breathing new life into old plays by, as they put it, “scour[ing] the dramaturgical dustbin” for works that have been lost or neglected. The Mint is not the only theatrical organization to take on this challenge, but it does it particularly well by taking great care in designing its showcase productions so as to present these plays not as museum pieces, but as living works that are fresh and vibrant and a pleasure to watch.    

Case in point is the current production of The New Morality, a charming and amusing comedy from 1911 by American-born, British-raised playwright Harold Chapin that rises from a lightweight romp to surprisingly Shavian levels in the third of its three short acts (each running approximately 30 minutes). 

The New Morality takes place aboard a houseboat on the Thames, where the idle rich spend their summers in an effort to escape the insufferable heat of the city.  Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney) is lying in her bed in self-imposed exile after committing the unpardonable sin of having a loud and public row with another woman for encouraging Betty’s husband to flit around her like an infatuated schoolboy.  It doesn’t even rise to the level of flirtation, but in her eyes it is a matter of dignity and pride, both for herself and her husband. So she is digging in her heels. As she tries to explain to her bemused husband:

            I never misconstrued your relations in the very 
            least. When you bobbed up and down on your
            chair and fidgeted with your watch all through tea 
            because you’d got to fetch her a packet of hairpins
            from the town and you dreaded finding the shop 
            shut, I never feared it was illicit passion that made  
            you so anxious, and even when she made you 
            sing  idiotic duets with her, I never doubted your 
            innocence or hers.

The action of the play centers on the efforts of the two husbands, Col. Ivor Jones (Michael Frederic) and Teddy Wister (Ned Noyes), spouse of the unseen recipient of Betty’s wrath, to set things right between the neighbors. As neither of the men likes any of the fuss and bother, the fun lies in watching them try to coerce Betty into apologizing.

But Betty is having none of it.  She appears to be enjoying their discomfort, and she is happy to call Teddy’s bluff when he threatens to take her to court. 

So what is going on with Betty?  Why is she being so stubborn?  Is she merely bored, or seeking attention?  In the end, the answer comes not from her, but from Teddy, whom we have viewed as sort of a milquetoast who, against his nature, is going through the motions of defending his wife because that’s what a husband does. 

In Act III, however, Teddy and the play itself come into their own. Over dinner, to which he has invited himself, Teddy offers up a gloriously convoluted and alcohol-fueled speech about how Betty represents the modern woman, whose seemingly superficial behavior masks a spiritual and aesthetic evolution that mere men can barely begin to appreciate. 

Betty says earlier in the play that she is no suffragette, but in many ways she actually is carrying the battle flag for women’s rightful place in the world.  As she explains to her friend Alice (Clemmie Evans):

            I’m beginning to understand how people feel 
            when their convictions are described as—‘Betty, 
            darling, you’ve lost your sense of proportion.’  

This, along with Teddy’s wonderful rant, is what the “new morality” is all about.  We are entering into a new world of equality between the sexes – a revelation worthy of George Bernard Shaw.  

Under the direction of the company’s smart and sharply focused producing artistic director Jonathan Bank, the cast is uniformly strong, with Mr. Noyes giving a stellar performance as the fumbling yet ultimately insightful Teddy. With The New Morality, the Mint once again shows just what you can do when you scour that old “dramaturgical dustbin.” 

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 new 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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