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Theatre in Review: Conflict (Mint Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Jeremy Beck, Jessie Shelton. Photo: Todd Cerveris

"Why do people belong to the Labour Party?" This question -- not facetious in context -- hangs over Miles Malleson's 1925 drawing room intrigue. Clearly, Malleson was a man of many parts -- actor, screenwriter, director, producer, and Labour Party partisan -- but, above all, he was a playwright gifted with a keen sense of what works on stage. Not too long ago, the Mint presented Yours Unfaithfully, his astringently honest and modern (especially for 1933) examination of an open marriage. Conflict is notable for the way it blends several theatrical genres into a satisfying whole. As a bonus, it's a sharp piece of social commentary that has lost little or none of its relevance. And, under Jenn Thompson's assured direction of a sparkling cast, it's a rattling good tale.

Conflict begins rather like a period thriller, with a desultory pair of lovers sitting up in the wee hours after an evening of dancing. He is Major Sir Ronald Clive and she is The Lady Dare Bellingdon, and their weary, skittish mood, in which marriage is discussed in the most evasive manner, is shattered when Clive notices that he is being followed. The scene that ensues effectively uses every trick in the suspense book -- a face hovering in the window, a door handle that moves at the most inopportune moment, a gun produced when one least expects it -- but Malleson is not chasing after twopenny shudders. Instead, he introduces into the action Tom Smith, a college acquaintance of Ronald's who has hit the skids and needs to make a last-ditch request.

What follows is a lengthy piece of exposition detailing Tom's slide into penury, caused by a web of bad luck: family business reverses, postwar trauma, the deaths of his parents, and an education that ill-prepared him for any sort of paying career. In other hands, the speech might have seemed onerous, a thick slab of exposition, but it is delivered superbly by Jeremy Beck, whose solid grasp of period style has made him a mainstay of The Actors Company Theater and, more recently, the Mint. Beck paces his tale expertly, impulsively pouring out the ruinous details, yet, occasionally, coming to an abrupt halt, pausing to consider how much more of his humiliation he must share. Hunched over a coffee table, devouring a plate of sandwiches and gulping glass after glass of whiskey, he infuses the scene with an animal desperation that leaves his auditors -- Clive and Lord Bellingdon, Dare's father -- in a state of speechlessness.

Following this unsettling confrontation, during which the play edges into Shavian territory, Malleson engineers a nifty plot twist when, eighteen months later, a general election looms and Ronald decides to carry the Conservative banner in his district, only to find that his Labour challenger is Tom. Because of their previous encounter, Ronald has some potentially damaging material on Tom; further complicating matters, Dare and Tom can't keep their eyes off each other. By now, with romance and ideologies tightly entangled, we have crossed the border into Somerset Maugham territory, and everyone is armed with some delightfully crisp dialogue to do battle over the tea-things.

Thanks to Thompson's steady hand and a cast that embraces every line of this charming artifice, playing it for keeps, Conflict never feels like a mishmash of styles; instead, the progression from one mood to the next feels like the natural result of the characters and their choices. Beck, who may be giving his best performance to date, has a fine romantic sparring partner in Jessie Shelton. As Dare, whose days consist of lunch, dinner, dancing, bridge, and an occasional visit to the theatre (arriving late, usually, because one so hates to rush through dinner), Shelton -- last seen making out with most of the cast of Cruel Intentions -- is a perfect bright young thing, looking at all times faintly bored and throwing away her lines with elan. She and Beck enjoy a natural opposites-attract chemistry, adding some crackle to the scenes in which he gives her a political education. (Check out their rapid-fire exchange when Tom pointedly comments on the Bellingdons' expansive town and country houses. "Sixty rooms -- for two people," Toms says. Well, she adds, quickly, there are the servants, too.) Shelton also masterfully commandeers the final scene, in which Dare, now politically wised up, intervenes in Ronald and Tom's personal battle, sending them back onto the campaign trail with a newfound authority.

The rest of the cast delivers in the same spirit. Henry Clarke gives Ronald a basic decency, even when he finds himself knee-deep in political skullduggery. As Lord Bellingdon, Graeme Malcolm is a pillar of British Empire values, appalled to find himself overthrown in his own home. ("My God! I'd rather be ruled by Bolsheviks than by women.") Jasmin Walker is silky-smooth as Dare's knowing friend, who senses a romance in the offing with Tom. James Prendergast is the most efficient of butlers, even with the house surrounded by angry voters. Amelia White makes the most of a brief appearance as Tom's landlady, who, cheerfully and without an ounce of malice, explains why his advocacy for the lower classes is entirely pointless.

Time was when Mint productions struggled to suggest the moneyed way of life enjoyed in some of its productions, but no longer: John McDermott has supplied a wood-paneled drawing room that would be right at home in Mayfair or Kensington, and Martha Hally has dressed the cast correspondingly. (The men's suits in particular show a great attention to detail.) Mary Louise Geiger's lighting nicely captures various times of day, and Toby Algya's sound combines various classical music selections with a ticking, chiming clock and the rising tide of voices from an offstage crowd.

With its open embrace of Labour values (its first government was established in 1924), its frank handling of premarital sex, and its may-the-best-man-win embrace of democracy, one imagines that Conflict must have rattled more then a few Conservative cages during its initial West End run. Interestingly, many of Tom's speeches have an eerie ring of familiarity, reminding us that he, Dare, and the others aren't the only ones living in a society marked by insupportable economic and social inequality. But Malleson plays fair with his characters and their positions; instead of feeling lectured, you can enjoy Conflict for the ripping yarn that it is. --David Barbour

(21 June 2018)

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