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Theatre in Review: The New Morality (Mint Theater Company)

Brenda Meany. Photo: Richard Termine

The program notes for The New Morality call it a "tempest-in-a-teapot" comedy. I'm afraid that the tempest is barely a squall and the tea is exceptionally weak.

We live in an age that no longer believes in light comedy's ability to lay bare the subtle shifts in manners and mores that signify major social changes. It's a pity; if it was good enough for Wilde, Maugham, and Coward, it ought to be good enough for us. Truth is, some of the frothiest dramatic concoctions are the most enduring; I can say without hesitation that Private Lives -- which, on the face of it, appears to be about nothing more than a pair of exes getting back together, breaking up again, and reuniting for the second time -- has far more to say about human relations than many a more self-consciously solemn dramatic sermon.

Still, a light comedy has to be about something. The New Morality poses the question: Will Betty Jones, having insulted her next-door neighbor, apologize? A half a dozen characters join in the discussion of this less-than-urgent topic without adding a great deal of light to the situation. Indeed, so languorously wrought is Harold Chapin's dramatic situation that it takes most of Act I for Betty to get out of bed.

The setting is the most novel thing about this dramatic serving of tea and crumpets. Betty and Col. Ivor Jones, her husband, live in a community of houseboats populated by fashionable couples seeking relief from "the hottest summer on record." In Steven Kemp's lovely set design the stage (which, at different times, represents Betty's bedroom and the deck of the boat) is surrounded by a blue-green mural depicting a canal with floating homes lined up along each side. This image is crucial, because Betty, in calling Muriel Wister a series of "dog-show names" on the deck of Muriel's boat, has committed a very public breach of decorum, drawing a large and lively audience of residents and passersby. Betty, rolling around in bed, taking tea with her friend Alice, insists that she is now a figure of scandal, although she seems to rather enjoy the fact. Admitting that she is ravenous, she explains to the baffled Alice, "Oh, my dear, you must send away the next meal after a scene; it's part of the ritual of the thing. It's no excuse, I suppose, but it's doing the thing properly, and that's something."

To give you an idea of how little is at stake in The New Morality, Betty called out Muriel for flirting rather too brazenly with Ivor. Does she worry that Ivor is being unfaithful? Not a bit. In fact, she intimates, she almost might prefer that. Furthermore, there is no threat of scandal; she freely admits that the entire community is convinced of Ivor's fidelity. Instead, she says, "Oh, I've seen lots of these platonic friendships. You can recognize them quite easily; the man thinks he's a hero and looks like a fool, and the woman goes about with that damn conceited look of having got something for nothing." By this point, it's obvious that Betty has a lot of nerve calling anybody conceited; and the fact that you don't root for Ivor to haul off and deck her is a tribute to Brenda Meaney's considerable technical skills. She manages to give Betty a veneer of charm without ever relinquishing her rather unshakeable core of vanity and spite.

In addition to Ivor and Alice, others get drawn into the situation, including Wallace, Muriel's husband -- we never see Muriel, by the way -- and Geoffrey, Betty's brother, who is a lawyer. The discussions are so intense that you may wonder if you have wandered into the Congress of Vienna rather than a tiny dispute between two upper-middle-class matrons. Wallace, who hopes to extract and apology from Betty, worries about having a drink with Ivor, for fear Muriel might see. The threat of legal action is raised, allowing Greg to offer sage legal advice. Betty tries a counteroffer, suggesting that she will apologize if Muriel vacates the river. Ivor, hoping to be taken seriously by his wife, makes noises about a scandalous past in his regiment days, a gambit that gets him nowhere. Finally, Betty, breaking down, raises her eyes to heaven and asks, "Why do we want so much more than food and drink and faithfulness, when we can't even get them?" At this point, I knew exactly how she felt, hoping for witty conversation and a plot with some kick to it, and finding the god of drama to be remarkably unresponsive on this occasion.

Under Jonathan Bank's suave direction, The New Morality has all the polish we've come to expect from Mint productions. In addition to Meaney, Michael Frederic's Ivor is such a perfectly stolid, yet right-thinking, chap, that you instinctively want him to be happy (even if it means staying with Betty). Clemmie Evans is reminiscent of a younger Georgia Engel as the gentle, yet perceptive, Alice. Christian Campbell's Geoffrey is as smooth as Devon cream, making his observations with rare urbanity. Ned Noyes has some amusing moments as Wallace, his panic rising at the prospect of facing an unappeased Muriel; he also delivers with considerable assurance the play's not terribly convincing summary argument, that Betty's actions represent a higher form of aestheticism and moral refinement. The rest of the production, including Carisa Kelly's period-accurate and character-observant costumes, Christian DeAngelis' uncluttered lighting, and Jane Shaw's music and sound effects, combine to highly evocative effect.

"You overestimate trifles," an exasperated Ivor tells Betty, and it occurred to me that, this one time, the charge could also be applied the fine people at the Mint. The company remains unrivaled when it comes to digging up glittering obscurities that one has supposed were forever lost, but once in a while one will find lead instead of diamonds. I suppose Harold Chapin, an American-born, London-bred purveyor of drawing room trivialities -- and who died, tragically young, in World War I -- was worth trying, once. But surely the Mint will soon find some light comedies with something more substantial to say. -- David Barbour


(22 September 2015)

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