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|A CurtainUp Review
The Flattering Word & Farewell to the Theater
I believe in the theater of ideas. It's all right to hold a rattle before the immature, but let there also be a theater for the intelligent and well-informed. In every civilized community the theater is and has always been a center of culture -- George KellyGeorge Kelly would undoubtedly appreciate the Mint Theater Company's mission of giving new life to forgotten playwrights like him and Harley Granville-Barker, and doing so without resorting to "holding a rattle before the immature. " The company's plays, even when they fall short, are invariably chosen and produced with the intelligent and well-informed theater goer in mind.
Both the American Kelly and the British Granville-Barker would also like the way the Mint has found a connecting thread -- a central character whose life's passion is the theater -- to pair two short plays, each wrote in 1916. Kelly's, The Flattering Word is a comic pastiche about an actor who charms a prejudiced Midwestern parson out of his disapproval of the theater. A Farewell to the Theater, is a wistful triangle about an actress, the man who loves her and his chief competitor, the theater. It is also a behind-the-scenes look at the financial problems, then as now, of keeping a theater company solvent.
Director Gus Kaikkonen, who did such an outstanding job with Granville-Barker's The Voysey Inheritance (see link below), has wisely chosen The Flattering Word as the evening's curtain raiser. Clocking in at just forty-five minute, the playlet quickly and amusingly makes its point. Actor Eugene Tesh (Allyn Burrows) is scheduled to appear in a play in Youngstown where he plans to visit an old school friend Mary (Sioux Madden) lives with her husband Reverend Rigley (Michael Stebbins). When Mary announces his impending arrival the Reverend flounces out of the parsonage living room unwilling to meet this representative of the devil's world. No sooner has he exited out one side of the stage, than we hear sounds of Tesh's arrival at the other. After being ushered into the living room by the Reverend's wary and disapproving acolyte, Mrs. Zucker (Colleen Smith Wallnau), the two friends catch up on each other's lives. Tesh, shocked that Mary has given up theater going to please her husband, proceeds to play out a variation of the play he's appearing in. If I tell you it's called The Open Mind, you can no doubt guess that the minds he will open are Mrs. Zucker's and the Reverend's.
Allyn Burrows, who is one of the most accomplished members of Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires, brings all the required charisma to the leading role. Sioux Madden who made a fine showing in The Voysey Inheritance, plays Mary with understated good humor. However, neither Burrows or Madden can do much to offset the fact that this is a sermon masquerading as a farce. This early work simply isn't a match to the Drama Department's terrific revival of Kelly's meatier and far funnier The Torch Bearers (see link below). Mr. Kaikkonen has directed the three other characters to play the broad humor of their parts to the hilt. Unfortunately, only Sara Barnett as the untalented Lena succeeds at being genuinely funny.
Farewell to the Theater once again finds George Morfogen, who so superbly portrayed a dignified if overly pragmatic attorney in The Voysey Inheritance, seated at the desk of a legal office. Pragmatism is again his concern, but only in part. What we have here is a love story, albeit a bittersweet one. Morfogen's Edward has been hopelessly in love with Dorothy (Sally Kemp), a grand dame of the theater, for more than thirty years. She has had other lovers. He has married, had children and become a widower. Now he's asked her to his office to discuss the desperate financial state of her theater. Discussion of her financial situation inevitably raises the scepter of their unfulfilled romance. Edward still fails to understand why, if he was willing to risk his conservative life style to marry her, she refused his numerous proposals. Not surprisingly, he even proposes again.
Morfogen and Kemp are a wonderful team and the play is a small gem. That said, Kemp's explanatory concluding monologue, for all its emotional richness, goes on too long. I won't tell you whether Dorothy accepts Edward's final proposal -- but I can say that all ends exactly as it should. It also left me wishing that the Mint's artistic director Jonathan Banks had found a third play (maybe something by Shaw, a Granville-Baker colleague) and given us a trio of plays, none exceeding thirty minutes.
The stagecraft is on a par with some of the Mint's best productions. Sarah Lambert's handsome set needs just a few furniture changes to serve as both an American parsonage and a London law office. Henry Shaffer has dressed all the performers to perfection, with an especially appealing "actressy" outfit for Ms. Kemp. One can only hope that Jonathan Banks' little theater won't ever face insurmountable obstacles that Ms. Kemp's Dorothy does so that it can keep bringing us these always interesting "forgotten" plays.