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Theatre in Review: The Rat Trap (Mint Theatre Company at City Center Stage II)

Sarin Monae West, James Evans. Photo: Todd Cerveris

Marriage is a zero-sum game in this early, rarely seen, Noël Coward comic drama. His first full-length play, written he was only nineteen, The Rat Trap is a champagne cocktail with a bitter under-taste, a startlingly bleak vision from one of the twentieth century's most assured entertainers. When it came to long-lasting romantic love, Coward was always a skeptic; here, he portrays it as the enemy of artistic creation.

"Marriage today is nothing but a temporary refuge for those who are uncomfortable at home," says Olive, chief cynic among a set of London literary strivers. She is commenting, obliquely, on the impending nuptials of Keld, an aspiring playwright, and Sheila, a novelist of some note. Outliers in a crowd populated by the happily single and those cohabiting without benefit of clergy, they anticipate a future of wedded bliss and mutual professional success. But Olive, who has experience in such matters, warns, "When two brilliant egoists marry, unless one of them is prepared to sacrifice certain things, there is bound to be trouble." In her view, something's got to give and, although she doesn't quite say it, it's usually the woman who surrenders. Sheila, who has built a career on satirizing love only to find herself in thrall to it, refuses to listen. "It's just retribution for my sneers in the past," she says, adding, "I shall love him, love him, love him, to the last day of my life, and it will damned well serve me right."

You can file that comment under the heading of famous last words. A year later, Keld is a smash West End playwright and Sheila, overwhelmed with managing a household and providing constant spousal support, can't get past the second chapter of her latest book. Putting up a brave front, she asserts, "It's splendid being an author's wife," but nobody is buying it, especially when it becomes clear that Keld, who hoovers up attention wherever he can find it, has acquired a little bit of something on the side.

Strikingly, the preternaturally precocious Coward -- who, despite his many love affairs, always put his career first, and whose later-in-life relationship with the actor Graham Payn reflected some of the tensions found in The Rat Trap -- had a clear vision of the perils posed by the pursuit of art. Even so, this is a youthful effort, switching gears between comedy and drama more crudely than one expects. Then again, the wit genuinely glitters and the two big confrontations between Keld and Sheila crackle with real ferocity, revealing a surprisingly feminist outlook. This is Coward in Shavian, almost Ibsenite, mode; if it ultimately represents for him a road not taken, it's a fascinating picture of a nascent talent exercising his creative muscles.

The Mint seems to have a special hotline to a fund of (mostly) young actors with the training and technical chops to handle stylized drama and, with one slight exception, Alexander Lass' production benefits from their skills. Although the play makes clear that Shelia is the superior talent. James Evans could play Keld with a shade less fatuity and self-involvement; he emphasizes the character's shallowest qualities a bit too much, leaving us wondering exactly what Sheila sees in him. The performance is by no means a disaster -- when it counts, he is unafraid to lay bare the character's needy, demanding side, and his ultimate sorrow feels genuine and touching -- but it would benefit from a slight rebalancing.

Then again, the production has a real find in Sarin Monae West, whose Sheila unwittingly enters a marital purgatory and struggles to find a way out; she endows her character with a piercing intelligence and a subdued intensity that bursts through in scenes of domestic combat. She also handles with tremendous authority the final scene, in which, following an unexpected announcement, Sheila charts a cheerless, if more realistic, future for her and Keld.

The milieu of literary and theatrical worldlings surrounding Keld and Sheila is brought to life by a solid supporting cast. Elisabeth Gray is astringent as Olive, a failed fiction writer turned "professional scandal monger" ("All one needs is a certain amount of observance, absolutely no scruples, and a spiteful sort of sense of humor -- all of which I possess") who nevertheless provides Sheila with wise counsel. Claire Saunders, a charming ingenue in Chains, the Mint's previous production, amuses as Ruby, a self-described "designing actress," fresh out of musical theatre, who sees Keld as her ticket to a legit career. ("I'm sick of singing bright songs," she notes. "I want a bit of sordid realism." And she knows how to get it.) Heloise Lowenthal and Ramzi Khalaf are fun as self-consciously bohemian lovers, she the author of potboilers with titles like Fate's Plaything and The Lips of Love and he a sententious, cliché-spouting poet. Making every line count, and offering some priceless lethal stares, is Cynthia Mace as a dour housekeeper who clearly views Keld and Sheila as disappointments in the employer department.

Lass' direction is filled with tasty comic ideas, including a noisy tea trolley that breaks up a deadly serious conversation and a droll bit in which Saunders' character sends mixed signals about leaving the room, leaving everyone politely bobbing up and down. But he also casts a stark light on Keld and Sheila's disintegrating relationship, especially in the abrupt, faintly chilling finale; it's a fine New York debut for this London-based artist.

Vicki R. Davis' set design doesn't entirely solve the challenge of creating three very different locations in the confines of this small theatre -- the upstage wall, a mural of the Cornish coast that appears in the final scene, looks oddly out of place in Keld and Sheila's flat, even when partly covered up -- but the scene changes are handled skillfully. Courtesy of sound designer Bill Toles, the first is staged to Lowenthal and Khalaf's rendition of the early Coward number "Forbidden Fruit" ("Every peach/Out of reach is attractive/'Cause it's just a little bit too high") and the second to Ralph Vaughan Williams "The Lark Ascending." Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes include a couple of eye-catching dressing gowns for Keld and a wittily bizarre ensemble -- all red ruffles and fur trimming -- for Ruby, the actress; Olive also makes a laugh-getting entrance, swathed in tartan, announcing a trip to Scotland. Christian DeAngelis' subtly colored lighting creates a warmly incandescent atmosphere.

The Rat Trap is unmissable to anyone with an interest in Coward but, thanks to some hilarious dialogue and many penetrating insights, it is more than a theatrical curio. It extends the Mint's remarkable winning streak in unearthing forgotten, yet eminently stage-worthy, plays. Indeed, it is a sterling example of why this company remains an essential part of New York's theatre scene, extending our understanding of theatre history while providing audiences with literate, sophisticated entertainment. --David Barbour

(23 November 2022)

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