NEW YORK—Life aboard an elegant houseboat on the Thames River in 1911? What elements tempted artistic director Jonathan Bank of the Mint Theater Company to tackle this one?
Noted for resurrecting old but fine and forgotten plays, the Mint here puts a spotlight on young playwright Harold Chapin, considered an up-and-coming playwriting talent in England, when, tragically, he met an early death as a stretcher-bearer in France. The year was 1915 and Chapin was 29 years old.
The crux of the play revolves around Betty Jones’s (Brenda Meaney) refusal to apologize to her neighbor Muriel (unseen in the play) for making a particularly rude and slanderous remark to her onetime friend. The event came out of Betty’s rage at her husband, Colonel Ivor Jones (Michael Frederic), for dancing attendance on Muriel all summer.
Ivor is beside himself with conflict and guilt, not quite knowing who is in the right. He feels himself innocent of wrongdoing, but Betty nevertheless remains in a rage against him. Furthermore, she is adamant in her stance: She will not apologize.
Entering the picture is Muriel’s husband, E. Wallace Wister (Ned Noyes), who is threatening legal action if Betty doesn’t apologize. Handily, Betty’s brother, Geoffrey (Christian Campbell), appears. Handily, because he happens to be a lawyer and hopefully will help straighten things out.
Along the way, we are treated to Betty concocting a summer cocktail called a hock cup, made up of a variety of alcoholic beverages plus cucumbers. It apparently packs quite a punch (no pun intended), because Wister appears in a hilarious scene of inebriation—he’s not exactly drunk, just inebriated—in the upper-class manner.
Happily, everything is sorted out by the end.
Some subtlety of character is indicated, because it’s never quite made clear whether Betty lost her temper (and her class status, momentarily, at any rate) out of her noble sense of rightness or whether she was just plain jealous. Perhaps both.
As is usual with Mint presentations, production elements (Jonathan Bank himself directed) are of the highest order. Brenda Meaney is lovely, whether in a rage or in a more gentle mood. Ned Noyes pleases, whether playing drunk or sober. Clemmie Evans as Alice, Betty’s close friend, brings a nice warmth and softness to her scenes.
Douglas Rees, as the man-servant Wooten, offers a touch of tradition mixed with wiliness. Also in the cast is attractive Kelly McCready as the maid Lesceline.
Set designer Steven Kemp creates an elegant and festive houseboat deck with Christian DeAngelis’s lighting enhancing the effect, as do Jane Shaw’s music and sound. Costumes by Carisa Kelly are undoubtedly authentic for the period, but one might wish for more attractive outfits to enhance the women’s figures.
Chapin’s play offers an interesting insight into the period and behaviors of the upper class. The overall effect is not as potent as might be wished, but fine potential is shown. All the more tragic, for if Chapin had not died at a young age he would most probably have gone on to become a major playwright.
‘The New Morality’
The Mint Theater
311 W. 43rd St.
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or MintTheater.org
Running Time: 2 hours
Closes: Oct. 18
Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. She may be contacted at DiaBarth@juno.com.