"You've Come a Long Way, Baby?"
|Stars range from 5-1.|
The Mint Theater continues its admirable mission of discovering little-known but hopefully worthy old plays with this mildly amusing revival of Harold Chapin’s (1886-1915) The New Morality, written c. 1911-1912. It premiered in London in 1920, five years after Chapin—a Brooklyn boy raised in London whose plays are now largely forgotten—died during World War I. In 1921 it had a brief series of mostly matinee performances on Broadway, starring Gladys George; The New York Times’s Alexander Woollcott called it a “diverting, little tea-tray, English comedy.”
|From left: Brenda Meaney, Clemmie Evans: Photo: Richard Termine.|
Chapin’s play is an Edwardian curiosity, something like a shaved-down Shavian comedy of aphorisms and ideas, their fragility becoming increasingly apparent over the course of three acts (with two intermissions). Fortunately, Jonathan Banks’s staging brings the chatty piece in at an hour and fifty minutes. The Mint’s discoveries are often worth resuscitating; despite its occasional pleasantries and historical interest, however, they should have let this sleeping play lie.
Everything takes place between 4:30 and 8:00 o’clock aboard a houseboat on the Thames (very attractively designed by Steven Kemp and lit by Christian DiAngelis), the kind that served as vacation homes for the well-to-do during the summer of 1911, referred to as “the hottest summer on record.” Sweltering or not, the characters only now and then show signs of discomfort, behaving with stiff upper lips as the veddy proper English middle-class people they are. Fashionably dressed by Carissa Kelly, the women wear long cotton dresses, and the men, despite heat that sours the milk, are in jackets, ties, and high collars buttoned to the neck. A conventional maid (Kelly McCready) and a highly dignified butler (Douglas Rees) are on hand to attend to people’s needs.
The play’s concerned with how everyone reacts to Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney—a pretty, charmingly temperamental, sometimes sarcastic representative of what Chapin calls the “new morality”—after she insults a neighbor, Mrs. Muriel Wister (whom we never meet), by calling her a . . . ; well, the word’s not spoken, of course, but a reference to “dog-show language” makes what she said quite clear. Worse, her use of such “bad language,” as someone calls it, took place on the river, where everyone could hear it. (This all transpired before the play begins.)
Muriel is the kind of woman that enjoys having men circling around her; this enrages Betty when she believes her own otherwise faithful spouse, Col. Ivor Jones (Michael Frederic), has been making a fool of himself—not by having an affair, but by becoming Muriel’s toady. Betty, jealous though she be, is upset principally because he’s been running petty errands for Muriel, like getting her hairpins. Muriel sends her henpecked, but good-natured husband, Ted (Ned Noyes), to demand Betty’s apology, which she adamantly refuses to provide. Ted, parroting his wife, reluctantly threatens a lawsuit for libel, which could potentially send Betty to prison. The remaining stage time is occupied with the characters—including Betty’s friend, Alice (Clemmie Evans), who begs Betty to say she’s sorry, and Betty’s brother, Geoffrey (Christian Campbell), a respected jurist, who offers his legal perspective—working out their issues.
|From left: Christian Campbell, Douglas Rees, Brenda Meaney, Clemmie Evans, Michel Frederic. Photo: Richard Termine.|
The often clotted, and too infrequently witty, dialogue, which rings more of the Edwardian stage than of real life, covers things like the criminality of Betty’s offense; the influence of the “twentieth century” on people’s language; the effect of the weather on Betty’s temperament; how to get Betty to apologize, and other not especially scintillating topics. Only toward the end do “serious” ideas become significant, when Geoffrey discourses about the disparity between technological progress and man’s moral stagnation, and the inebriated Ted bloviates in lengthy, high-flown rhetoric about how Betty’s willingness to go to prison rather than apologize for standing up for her beliefs represents what he admires as the new women’s morality.
Only a first-rate company could make this frothy material work, and the Mint’s, while competent, falls short. The beautiful Meaney does quite nicely as the stubborn Betty, and Noyes makes the most of the silly but nonetheless intelligent Ted, but Frederic’s Jones is a series of cardboard attitudes (admittedly written that way), the boyish-looking Campbell is miscast as Geoffrey, and Clemmie Evans as Betty’s friend Alice doesn't do much with her two-dimensional confidante role. .
|Christian Campbell, Brenda Meaney, Ned Noyes, Clemmie Evans, Michael Frederic. Photo: Richard Temine.|
Even if it reflects the attitudes of its day, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for a situation wherein a jealous woman can be threatened with libel for using a word that’s now as common as the air, and where we’re expected to admire her because she’d sooner go to prison than apologize for insulting another woman over something as trivial as the fetching of hairpins. There had to be more to the new morality than that.
THE NEW MORALITY
311 West Forty-Third Street, NYC
Through October 18