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A CurtainUp Review
The Madras House
By Elyse Sommer
In 1999, thanks to that inveterate theatrical archeologist Jonathan Bank, New York audiences had an opportunity to see a splendid production of Granville-Barker's remarkably timely The Voysey Inheritance at Bank's Mint Theater. Great reviews and audience response brought it back the following year for another successful run. This season, Off-Broadway is dishing up a double dose of Granville-Barker — David Mamet's streamlined adaptation of Voysey at the Atlantic Theater and at the Mint, a rare production of his 1910 play, The Madras House. Gus Kaikkonen, who so ably helmed Voysey, is again in charge of the large cast which includes Voysey favorites George Morforgen, Lisa Bostnar, and Kraig Swartz. No wonder that the demand for tickets has been strong enough for an extension even before the official opening.
The Madras House met with moderate success when it opened in London (1915), but by the time it opened (less successfully) at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse (1921), the author himself admitted in a program note that the disappearance of the "living-in system" made his story somewhat dated. And so it is — or is it?
Women may have come a long way and employers no longer control their employees' private lives but other troubling work place situations still have people feeling trapped in unfulfilling jobs and the divide between the rich and the poor has hardly disappeared. Viewed within the context of when it was written the play shows Granville-Barker to be a man well ahead of his time. And while Constantine Madras is a rich, well-educated Englishman who would never blow himself up for a political cause, his becoming a Mohammedan to fulfill his yearning for a Turk's harem brings to mind young Muslims propelled by promises of a hundred virgins.
Dated or not, the rather circular and go-nowhere arguments about the hypocrisy of Edwardian social and business mores always made this play with its emphasis on discussion more than action something of a backside breaker. At a full three hours, the current revival is perhaps a half hour too faithful to the original. That said, it would be a shame to let that stop you from seeing this beautifully staged and acted production.
Though The Madras House has the look and feel of a well-made period play, it is stylistically like a symphony. Instead of four acts moving the plot forward, we have four movements, each an almost self-standing variation on the overall symphonic theme — the position of women in Edwardian England.
The first movement or act introduces the wives and daughters of the owners of a large women's fashion emporium. The scene then shifts from the comfortable Huxtable home the scene shifts to the dour offices of the firm founded by Henry Huxtable and his brother-in-law Constantine Madras, a flamboyant designer whose son, Philip has worked as the firm's manager since his father took off for the more exotic life in the Middle East. In his capacity as manager Philip must settle a dispute involving a young female employee who has gotten herself pregnant and a married male clerk whose wife is in a fury because she suspects him of being the father the woman refuses to name. This scene exposes the cruelty of the "living in" system to which employees in many large firms like this were subjected. While the Huxtable daughters and their cousin Philip's wife are not forced to live in similarly unpleasant circumstances, their lives reflect the frustrating restraints on all women within the rigid social mores of the era. It therefore makes sense for some of the actresses playing the six mother-dominated Huxtable daughters reappear as puppet-like models when the firm's partners make a presentation to the American who has made a bid for their business.
George Morfogen's Constantine Madras is quite a different fellow from the head of the stiff upper lip head of the Voysey law firm. While he can't be accused of ignoring the firm's longstanding practice of illegally dipping into its clients' trusts he is again something of a a scoundrel by virtue of ,seducing . seducing House of Madras employees and abandoning his wife and son—returning to London only for the sale of the business. Morforgen plays this over-aged black sheep with his usual understated panache. Roberta Maxwell, a newcomer to the Mint but not to the stage, embodies both the bitterness and desperate yearning of the wronged wife, Amelia. Thomas Hammond displays the just right degree of political passion but personal dispassion as the Madras son (most likely the author's stand-in) who, as the play opens has taken steps towards selling off the family business to run for political office. Lisa Bostnar, a Mint regular, is luminous as ever as his wife and also as one of the six Huxtable sisters.
So much for the Madras clan. As the six interchangeable Huxtable daughters come on stage they initially bring to mind older versions of the Bennett girls in Pride and Prejudice. It's quickly clear that though no longer young, they are firmly under their mother's (Laurie Kennedy) thumb. Henry Huxtable (Jonathan Hogan), is the most interesting and endearing Huxtable as a man who has left most decisions to Philip since his illness which has also made him more thoughtful (an admittedly somewhat dangerous thing).
Set, lighting, costume, and sound, even more than is usual at the Mint, exceed expectations from a small theater near but not in the prime theater district. Clint Ramos' costumes for the third act fashion show are a perfect lead-in for the witty exchange of views about the role of the fashion business vis-a-vis the women's issue.
Typical of an old-fashioned, full-featured play like this, there are other acting opportunities for Huxtable and Madras outsiders. They include Mark L. Montgomery as Philip's friend Major Hippisly Thomas. . . Mary Bacon as the defiantly pregnant Miss Yates (she also doubles as the youngest Huxtable girl and a maid). . . Angela Reed as the outraged and outspoken wife of the clerk who is suspected of impregnating Miss Yates ). . . Kraig Swartz as her timid husband and, in a complete turnaround, as the designer who brings more than a touch of camp to the staid Madras boardroom.
Not to be overlooked is Ross Bickell's brief but impressive appearance as the play's only non-Englishman, the American tycoon who's adding Madras House to his growing empire and whose plans sound more than a little like those of any 21st century take-over tycoon. Who said this was dated?
Links to other reviews of Granville-Barker Plays
The Voysey Inheritance
The Voysey Inheritance
Waste/Barker, Harvey Granville
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide