Written by Harold Chapin
Directed by Jonathan Bank
The Mint Theater Company, dedicated to unearthing neglected plays, has this time discovered a true gem. Blending battle-of-the-sexes satire with a frothy Edwardian comedy of manners, THE NEW MORALITY captures a potent moment in British history when propriety was still a cornerstone of middle class life, but Victorian strictures had begun to collapse under their own weight.
Strong-willed Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney) has caused quite a stir among the inhabitants of a well-to-do colony of houseboat vacationers on the Thames River. As everyone within earshot knows, Betty spent the previous evening telling off Muriel Wister (offstage). It seems Muriel has been getting a tad responsive to the overtures of Betty’s husband, Colonel Jones (Michael Frederic). Betty’s demure friend Alice (Clemmie Evans) counsels contrition. But an apology is not forthcoming, and the husbands find themselves reluctantly drawn into a battle of wills. Timid Wallace Wister (Ned Noyes) is ill-suited to the task, but Muriel expects him to fight for her honor, Blustering threats and counter-threats follow. Betty’s brother (Christian Campbell), a cynical lawyer, is on hand in case a libel suit arises from the conflict. Even the servants (Kelly McCready and Douglas Rees) are hard-pressed to maintain order as the conflict spirals out of control. All this friction combines with record high temperatures to wear away the characters’ thin veneer of civility. Uncomfortable truths bubble to the surface and outdated value systems are called into question. For this to end well, sacrifices will have to be made on all sides.
Despite the play’s constraints of time and space, Harold Chapin’s script never feels stilted or expository. Comic tension rarely lags and the humor is character-driven, lending the story a freshness that transcends its period. Director Jonathan Bank moves his baton at the right speed: brisk, but not rushed. The ensemble goes at the material with confidence and zeal, with the radiantly mischievous Meaney providing a formidable epicenter. Like a comedic Hedda Gabler, she embodies the cold enjoyment Betty derives from putting people on the spot as well as the wounded woman within. The production is also visually satisfying, thanks to the color and whimsy of Steven C. Kemp’s sets, Carisa Kelly’s costumes and Christian DeAngelis’ lighting design.
THE NEW MORALITY continues through October 13th at the Mint Theater 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10036 | Box Office: 866-811-4111