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Theatre in Review: Yours Unfaithfully (Mint Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Elisabeth Gray, Max Von Essen. Photo: Richard Termine

What would 20th-century playwrights have done without adultery? The British especially would have been bereft without having a certain commandment to break onstage. Maugham, Coward, and Rattigan practically made an industry of it -- and, as late as the 1980s, writers such as Tom Stoppard and Peter Nichols were still sawing away at the conventions of marriage. Down through the decades, the approach has often been the same: Deposit some smart people in a smart setting -- a Mayfair townhouse, a country estate -- and subject their marital bonds to a stress test. Often, if not always, fidelity wins out in these plays, and if it doesn't, there are consequences: The aged lovers in Maugham's The Circle shed their spouses but pay the price in living a socially marginal existence. Amanda and Elyot, the warring exes in Coward's Private Lives, run off together, leaving a trail of broken hearts and shattered crockery; one doesn't think much of their future.

Then there's Stephen and Anne Meredith, the married couple at the heart of Miles Malleson's 1933 drama Yours Unfaithfully. He is a novelist of some success; she runs a school, which keeps them solvent between publication dates. It's hard to imagine a more companionable couple; they are the envy of their social set. And yet, when a friend asks how long they've been married, Anne replies, "Eight years" -- and the way Elisabeth Gray, who plays her, delicately looks away, letting silence reign, sends an aura of unease spreading through the room.

The trouble, Anne confides to a friend, is that Stephen is stuck in a happy marriage; paradoxically, he misses the experience of passion (and its side effect, conflict) that stimulated his writerly imagination. Their happiness, she adds, worriedly, is "evaporating; it's in danger, and I don't know what from." As it happens, Diana, a pretty, young widow, opens up to Stephen about the lonely, globetrotting existence that has been her lot since her aviator husband's death. When Anne discovers Stephen quietly stroking Diana's hair, she all but urges them to enjoy a little misadventure together.

Which they do: Eight weeks later, Stephen and Diana are in the throes of a full-blown romance, planning a fortnight in Vienna (where, incidentally, Anne has never been). And Anne is horrified to discover that her tolerance has been pushed to the breaking point. "He thinks I don't mind," she sadly notes of her husband. But lest you think Yours Unfaithfully is merely the story of an erring husband and faithful wife, Malleson has a few curveballs in his back pocket. For one thing, we learn that Anne has had her own extramarital experiences, too -- with Stephen's knowledge. (In fact, Stephen's approval was so wholehearted that Anne was more than a little offended.) Then there's Stephen's father, Canon Meredith, vice president of the Social Purity League and something of a blowhard when it comes to morality. When Stephen insists that his marital flings are his own concern, the "padre," as he is known, replies, "When our streets are unclean, a danger to health, it is obviously everybody's concern...of course it's to do with me and you and multitudes." A daily dose of that sort of rhetoric might warp a young man trying to grow up and stand on his own.

Rather than play this situation for brittle humor or farce, Yours Unfaithfully is a serious study of a couple who, intent on not living conventionally, end up entangled in their marriage's distinctly unusual ground rules. Their oh-so-rational design for living proves extremely problematic when powerful, unstoppable emotions insist on being expressed. Each solution one of them proposes seems to push them further into a very polite, very British vortex of confusion. They continue to cling to each other, but not without pain -- and yet, they are certain, they would almost certainly feel trapped in monogamy.

I won't say that Yours Unfaithfully is the most consequential work that the Mint has unearthed from its vault of lost works -- it is little too earnest, perhaps, its ironies a little too carefully polished -- but there are many compensations in the author's unfailing elegance of expression. Stephen sums up his artistic malaise, saying, "I'm not promising anymore -- just disappointing! I haven't got a future, but a very insignificant little past!" Urged by Anne to revisit their old city haunts, he replies, "No, darling, I Soho'd my wild oats too long ago." Commenting with some bitterness on the canon's influence over his life, Stephen tells Diana, "After all, sex is a very difficult country; and we've all got to pass through it; and his are the only signposts, and they lead so often in the wrong direction." Learning that Stephen is writing a book based on his affair with Diana, Alan, a family friend, tells him that an unhappy ending is the only one his reading audience will accept: "Anyhow, you must smash your own life, or wreck the life of others; It might be all right if you spent a lonely and homeless old age; or, better, if in the last chapter you came to see the folly of your ways; then you might sell the rights of it for an immense sum to the talkies."

And, under the super-smooth direction of Jonathan Bank, a quintet of actors, all equipped with a fine grasp of period style, make the most of Malleson's astringent portrait of an open marriage. Gray, her hair worn in a shingled '30s cut, her bias-cut dresses draped smartly across her wire-thin frame, is a model 1930s-modern wife, making all her guests feel at home, even those who want to help themselves to her husband. Later, sitting still, looking into the distance, we see how deeply her soul has been corroded by worry. When she finally works up the courage to say "I'm jealous," it has the force of a dark secret, long held and at long last freed. And when she decides it's time to get off the shelf herself, she does so with an odd, intriguing mix of chilly irony and brisk practicality. Max von Essen's Stephen is still very much his father's son, much to his dismay, seemingly forever condemned to rebel against the older man's joyless strictures; he plays his scenes with Gray with such intimacy that it's easy to believe they're old marrieds, but he also romances Mikaela Izquierdo's Diana with real ardor; reading a note from Anne that says she won't be coming home that night, he makes a poker face that nevertheless reveals an abundance of conflicting emotions.

Izquierdo makes Diana a genuinely sympathetic creature, left frozen by her husband's death and brought back to life by Stephen's touch. Todd Cerveris provides mordant sideline commentary as Alan, who has his own reasons for being privy to Stephen and Anne's marital secrets. For all his pontificating, Stephen Schnetzer's Canon Meredith is a genuinely good man; he also gives as good as he gets in his arguments with Stephen. Bank's direction is filled with the power of truths -- and emotions -- carefully held in check. A scene in which Anne and Diana sit facing each other, trying to think of a conversation starter, bristles with tension. There's another moment when several characters converge, awkwardly, each waiting for someone else to make the first move.

Carolyn Mraz's scenery takes in Anne and Stephen's country house, with its purple patterned wallpaper, aqua walls, olive green sofa, and orange club chair -- if the colors threaten to make you a little bilious, it's a fairly accurate rendition of period British style -- and the Merediths' faintly bohemian status is confirmed by the "modern" painting -- all squiggles and splashes of color -- over the fireplace. In contrast, the set depicting the couple's London pied-à-terre -- really, a glorified bed-sitting room -- is a harmonious blend of cream-colored walls and cozy furnishings. The entire production is wrapped in a luscious art deco proscenium. Xavier Pierce's lighting includes a flood of moonlight, and, later, dawn's early light pouring in through the window. Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes are beautifully draped on the ladies; the men are enclosed in nicely tailored period box suits. The ladies' period hairstyles are on the money, although the hair and makeup designer, John Jared Janas, might want to tone down the rouge on Gray's cheeks just a tad; she looks terribly flushed in the first two scenes. Jane Shaw's sound design includes such effects as birdsong and traffic plus a playlist of period tunes that includes "The Best Things in Life are Free" and "You're the Cream in My Coffee."

Most interestingly, Malleson, whose point of view is bracingly honest throughout, leaves the question of the Merediths' fate wide open. Whatever pain they have caused each other, they have done so honestly and in plain view; does this make them stronger -- or have they needlessly inflicted damage on their very real happiness? I'll bet that you'll be turning that question over in your head for quite some time. -- David Barbour

(26 January 2017)

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