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A CurtainUp Review
The New Morality
By Elyse Sommer
Rock was born too late to become one of that awful war's millions of victims and thus lived to write this epic about it. Not so Chapin. He lived just long enough to make his mark as an up and comer in London's theatrical world — as an actor, stage manager, producer and dramatist. No doubt, had he survived the war, he would have nurtured and deepened his dramatic skills and created characters and themes with more profound social concerns than a quarrel between two neighboring couples in an upper middle class houseboat community on the Thames.
Now the Mint Theater is commemorating Harold Chapin's centennial (1886-1915) with The New Morality, a play from Chapin's tragically limited oeuvre. The three-act domestic comedy plays out during late afternoon and evening of a hot summer day in 2011. It's the last gasp for the Edwardian era. At its center are the Joneses and Wisters — the lovely and charming Betty Jones (an aptly charming and lovely Brenda Meaney) and husband Ivor (an appropriately stiff upper lip Michael Frederic), the unseen but crucial to the plot Muriel Wister and her husband E Wallace (a delightfully befuddled Ned Noys).
These river dwellers' lives are quite idyllic. The Jones's boat on which this tempest in a teapot plot plays out is quite luxurious. It features substantial furnishings, a uniformed maid (Kelly McCready) and a man servant (Douglas Rees). Much is made of this being a summer so exceptionally hot that it has put people, especially Betty Jones, on edge.
But while the record breaking heat may have heated up Betty's verbal assault against Muriel Wister and that lady's response, these very proper folks did not break traditional rules for attire: de rigueur uniforms for Esceline the maid and Wooten the manservant. . .hat and gloves for Betty's unmarried friend Alice Meynell (Clemmie Evans as the epitome of well-mannered young ladies). . . ties, vests and jackets are firmly in place for the two husbands and Betty's Kings Counsel brother Geoffrey Belasis(Christian Campbell).
According to director Jonathan Bank's program notes, the text's frequent references to the weather helped him see beyond the play's trivial brouhaha about the women's quarrel in which their husbands become unhappily embroiled. While the play does have a Shavian flavor (Chapin acted in some of George Bernard Shaw's plays), even an inveterate restorer of rarely seen or under-appreciated plays like Bank hasn't been able to give this essentially slight play more than a very light touch of Shaw's social depth. (Two intermissions take up close to a half hour of the hour and fifty minute run time).
But not to worry. True to its name, the Mint's productions are always first-rate and The New Morality is no exception. Mr. Bank has once again taken us back to another time and place with an authentic and fluuidly staged and vividly acted theatrical snapshot of a group of Londoners living on the cusp of enormous changes.
Director Bank doesn't rush things but allows his characters to reveal themselves and establish the dramatic situation. Thus the first act is more or less a set-up: It seems that Betty, fed up with her neighbor's way of inveigling Colonel Jones to make an ass of himself by being at her beck and call, confronted her with angry insults. It's pride not jealousy that made Betty mad as hell about the direction the friendship between her neighbor and the retired Colonel has taken. We're not privy to the scene between the women, but we get the idea of how far it went as Muriel's husband shows up, the unhappy bearer of bad news: unless Betty apologizes to Muriel, legal action will be taken.
It's not until the third act that the not especially ground-breaking new morality theme gains traction when Betty's brother shows up to comment on how the law courts of the day would would respond to a libel suit like this. The offended Muriel Wister's husband breaking under the strain of having to support his wife is fairly predictable. However it does give Ned Noyes's Wister a chance to get gloriously and amusingly drunk.
The discussion between him and Betty's brother does help this light comedy of manners to resonate. After all, Geoffrey's declaration that mankind has failed to live up to the moral code set forth by the ten commandments holds true to this day. Besides indulging in inconsequential quarrels like this hot weather fueled one, people continue to kill each in lengthy wars. The war that killed Harold Chapin didn't end all wars any more than all that followed have. If he'd survived who knows what really great plays he might have written.
Postscript #1: I asked Lizzie Loveridge, Curtainup's London critic if there were still house boat communities along the Thames. She replied that there were indeed some along the Thames and canals but none she knew of with maids and Jeeves-like man servants. In fact, a cousin of hers sold her terraced house in Leeds to go at age 60 and live on the water in a moored houseboat with her newish husband. According to Lizzie, tourists can rent a houseboat with or without staff for self drive and that her own family had several canal boat holidays.
Postscript #2: The Mint Theater has been one of the Off-Broadway world's genuine treasures. In looking over the production history on the back of the company's always informative program, I'm happy to note that we've covered every one of their shows, and while the company has stayed in their modest third floor space, they've developed an outstanding website which features photos and video previews. Check it out at http://minttheater.org/current-production/?tab=tab-1.
The Mint was also part of a pioneering Public television programs "Theater Close-Up." The first season featured their 2014 hit, London Wall . Season 2 will replay another Mint hit, Fashions For Men .