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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Conflict, unlike Yours Unfaithfully, did make it from page to stage, and with considerable success. It had a well received London run in 1925, and was made into a movie in 1931. Still, given how long ago that was, it fits Mint artistic director and chief archaeologist Jonathan Bank's mission to give forgotten plays the Mint treatment. That means a handsome, well acted production. — which Conflict, as astutely staged by director Jenn Thompson at the Mint's Theater Row home, certainly is.
Like George Bernard Shaw's "discussion" plays, Conflict, though billed as a love story, also fits that Shavian genre since it's something of a debate about multiple social issues. But, perhaps even more than Shaw, Malleson avoided preachy polemics by skillfully using romance and snappy dialogue to tackle the politics of economic inequality, women's rights and less restrictive male-female relationships.
What's more, given the increased empowerment of the very rich and privileged all around us, as well as the #Me Too movement, this love story set in the roaring 20s and revolving around a hotly contested election, has a nice au courant flavor.
To keep things moving along at a fast, but still leisurely feeling pace, Director Thompson has streamlined the three-act play into two parts. The first two acts are conflated with one scene to cover each act, and the third act's two scenes winding things up after the intermission.
Except for the third act's opening scene, the entire scenario unfolds in the elegant sitting room of a stately manor. Lord Bellingdon (a perfectly cast Graeme Malcolm), the lord of that manor who gets to deliver some of the best lines in order to flaunt his prideful belief in his entitled status.
To start things off, we have a scene that establishes the relationship between Bellingdon's younger conservative friend, Major Sir Ronald, Clive (Henry Clarke, a charmer but just as locked into his class and its mores as Lord Bellingon) and Bellingdon's daughter, Lady Dare (Jessie Shelton, delicious as the spoiled rich girl who is ripe for reform).
Lord Bellingdon welcomes Clive's romance with his daughter, but he's unaware that they've been sleeping together for several years — very much a no-no in those days. Lady Dare prefers this illicit arrangement to marriage , which makes her given name slyly symbolic. But Clive feels he is betraying her father and would like them to get married.
Hovering over this late night tête-à-tête is the ominous presence of a strange man who's been mysteriously lurking around the garden. That mystery is entertainingly ratcheted up and clarified when Lord Bellingdon and Clive confront this stranger. The lurker turns out not to be a burglar but a down-on his luck fellow named Tom Smith (a terrifically nuanced performance by Jeremy Beck) who attended Cambridge when Clive did. With his everyman name this is the play's main conflict triggering character and event — the above mentioned election campaign that drives the plot.
By the time the intermission rolls around, Clive, who's the sure-to-win candidate of the firmly entrenched Conservative Party, has unwittingly enabled Smith to become his quite formidable opponent. True to his gentlemanly value system, he, as well as Lord Bellingdon, have promised to not use Smith's minor (but to them major) unlawful act as a campaign weapon.
To intensify both the political and romantic situations, hearing Smith's campaign speeches, puts a dent in Lady Dare heretofore unquestioning alliance to her privileged class. Clearly, both personal and political conflicts are bound to heat up for a slam-bang finale.
While the opinionated Lord Bellingdon, his daughter and the two rival candidates are Conflict's pivotal characters, the cast also includes two minor characters who make major contributions: Jasmin Walker as Lady Dare's sophisticated and wise older friend and confidante Mrs. Tremayne and Amelia White as Smith's hilarious but amazingly on the mark landlady Mrs. Robinson.
Mrs. Tremayne, though a member of the Bellingdon's aristocratic circle is, like Dare, an independent spirit. Her comment that the one thing she would wish for from a marriage would be never to be bored, certainly seems to support Dare's hesitancy to marry the charming but oh so proper Clive.
Mrs. Robinson's sympathetic but negative comments on her boarder's chances of winning the election, trenchantly mirror the reason the Americans who have little in common with men like Donald Trump, voted for him.
Since no play set in a stately mansion would be complete without servants, that class is here represented by Daniells, the butler (James Prendergast). Besides ushering the various guests in and out, he helps a silent maid do various between scenes stage hand chores. But don't be surprised if Daniells shows signs of excitement as the contest reaches a boiling point.
All these character are familiar archetypes. However, it's fun to meet Malleson's version of them.
Not to be underestimated are the pleasures offered by this production's designers, all of whom ably serve the drama. Though John McDermott has created a country estate interior without roll-out scenery changes, his unit set nevertheless evokes the grandeur of the Bellingdon estate. A curtain drawn around one section of the wide stage, simply and smoothly takes us to Smith's bed-sitter. In contrast to McDermott's focus on simplicity, , Martha Hally has gone all out with lovely and authentic jazz age costumes— especially for Lady Dare who gets to wear a different outfit each time she appears.
To sum up, Miles Maleson's plays once again validate the Mint as a retriever of gems from the theatrical attic of forgotten works. Since even plays by better known and somewhat younger playwrights land in the theatrical dust bin, next up is a chance to see if the Mint can rescue Lillian Hellman's Days to Come from gathering dust.
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Conflict by Miles Malleson
Directed by Jenn Thompson. Cast: Jeremy Beck (Tom Smith), Henry Clarke (Major Sir Ronald Clive), Graeme Malcolm (Lord Bellingdon), James Prendergast (Daniells), Jessie Shelton (Lady Dare Belingdon), Jasmin Walker (Mrs Tremayne), Amelia White (Mrs. Robinson)
Sets: John McDermott
Costumes: Martha Hally
Lights: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound: Toby Algya
Props: Chris Fields
Dialects & Dramaturgy: Amy Stoller
Production Stage Manager: Kelly Burns
Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, includes 1 inermission
Mint Theater Company at Beckett Theatre 410 West 42nd Street
From 5/25/18; opening 6/21/18; closing 7/21/18.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30pm with matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2pm. Wednesday Matinees at 2pm on June 20th and July 18th.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/16/18 press preview
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