Thursday, June 21, 2018

35 (2018-2019): Review: CONFLICT (seen June 19, 2018)

“Bolsheviks and Women”

The Mint Theatre, dedicated to the resuscitation of worthy but forgotten or neglected plays, has come up with an unexpectedly interesting, politically-based, British romantic dramedy from 1925.  Despite its positive reception in London, actor-director-playwright (and social activist) Miles Malleson’s (The Mint's Yours Unfaithfully) play never made it to Broadway and is only now receiving its New York premiere.
Jessie Shelton, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Conflict, not to be confused with a 1929 American play of the same title starring Spencer Tracy, was filmed in 1931 as The Woman Between. In another instance of simultaneously identical titles, that also was the name of an American movie made the very same year. Both the British film and play share political and sexual themes considered audacious for the day.

The setup is a quite neat one: the woman between, as the movie calls her, is Lady Dare Bellingdon (Jessie Shelton), the sheltered, upper-class daughter of the wealthy Lord Bellingdon (Graeme Malcolm). Dare, a fitting name for a flapper who flaunts contemporary morality, finds herself at the center of a political and romantic conflict involving Major Sir Ronald Clive, D.S.O. (Henry Clarke), called variously Clive or Ronnie, and Tom Smith (Jeremy Beck).
Jessie Shelton, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Clive, a Conservative running for a seat in Parliament, and Dare have been lovers and bed partners for a couple of years, although the stuffy Bellingdon, a supporter of Clive, is unaware of the intimate part of their relationship. Given Clive’s ambitions, of course, it might have potentially scandalous overtones. Clive would like to get married but Dare isn’t sure enough of her feelings to consider it.
Graeme Malcolm, Jeremy Beck, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The third leg of the triangle, Tom, once a respected classmate of Clive’s at Cambridge, has been reduced to the status of a beggar because of a series of personal misfortunes. Caught by Bellingdon and Clive breaking into the former’s house in search of food, he embarrassedly explains the reasons for his downfall. Before being forced to leave, he’s given food, whiskey, and cash by the crabby but kind Bellingdon and the more sympathetic Clive.
Graeme Malcolm. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The sums they provide turn out to be more than the modestly generous amount they admit to, and when we next hear from Tom he’s used the money to turn his life around and is now running for Parliament as the Labour Party candidate opposing his old chum Clive.
Janis Walker, Jessie Shelton. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Meanwhile, Dare, having met Tom, is fascinated by him. Her naïve understanding of politics, which inclines her toward Bellingdon and Clive’s conservative views, get seriously shaken up when she gets to know Tom’s socialist thoughts better. The situation, which also introduces Dare’s best friend, Mrs. Tremayne (Jasmin Walker), to assist in the exposition, thus provides ample room for the principals to air their political viewpoints.
Jessie Shelton, Janis Walker. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
It’s quite fascinating, nearly 100 years after the play was written, to hear 1925 characters talk about things like wealth distribution, personal responsibility for one’s situation in life, the masses’ need for proper housing and food, socialism’s alleged bias toward competition, the danger of overturning long-established principles, and other issues that continue to separate conservatives and progressives. At such moments, Conflict seems as if it were written yesterday. Malleson clearly favors the leftist arguments but does his best to keep the debate balanced
Jessie Shelton, Jeremy Beck, Graeme Malcolm. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Yes, there are mildly dated elements, like Clive’s chauvinistic dismissal of Dare’s political interests, or Bellingdon’s dismay at learning that his enlightened daughter may not be an exemplar of honor and purity: “I liked it,” she boldly admits when her affair is revealed. But such behavior is organic to the era and easy to appreciate within that context.
Graeme Malcolm, Jessie Shelton. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Weakest of the scenes is one between Tom and Dare in his room. Jenn Thompson’s direction keeps things quiet and underplayed as the two feel each other out. However, the slow pacing, pauses, and restraint seem at odds with the tension we should be feeling, especially when Tom’s  exposition of his socialist ideals begin affecting Dare’s convictions.
Jeremy Beck, Jessie Shelton. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
In the script, Tom comes off as something of a firebrand; on stage, Beck’s mousy rectitude suggests that he’s doused the flame for fear of singeing his listener’s delicate ears. And with so little sexual chemistry bubbling, it’s not easy to picture this couple getting beyond the simple kiss that climaxes their encounter.
Jessie Shelton, Jeremy Beck. Photo: Todd Cerveris. 
Thompson’s physically attractive production is set in John McDermott’s suitably posh drawing room, one half of which is efficiently converted to and from a bed-sitting room when needed. Mary Louise Geiger lights everything prettily and Martha Hally provides costumes that, while not always precisely accurate for the men, very nicely capture the fashionable look of 1920s hats, dresses, and gloves for the women.
Graeme Malcolm, Jeremy Beck, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The actors offer the equivalent of a quality stock company performance, smooth and capable, but unexceptional, with varyingly acceptable or consistent British accents. Still the performances are sufficient unto the purpose of keeping us glued to the narrative and its ideas.

The lanky Malcolm’s imperious Bellingdon, equipped with John Bolton’s mustache, is suitably bellicose yet parentally perplexed, while Clarke’s impeccably well-groomed Clive embodies all those well-mannered, fluty British gentlemen in 1930s films. Walker’s Mrs. Tremayne is satisfactory, Shelton shows spirit and intelligence as the upstart daughter with an independent turn of mind, but Beck, a Mint regular, lacks the charisma that Tom should radiate.

Conflict is a slightly flawed gem but the theatre season glows more brightly for the Mint’s having dug it up.


Theatre Row/Beckett Theatre
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 21