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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The above exchange isn't between an idealistic young political wannabe and a seasoned old Pol, circa the year 2000. Blackborough is an English Tory who with his colleagues is eager to use an able maverick to shore up party power by helping them to get credit adding an important law to the Statute book. If he succeeds they will bring him into the Cabinet. If not, he will become disposable.
As the recent revival of Harley Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance seemed as up-to-date as any Wall Street or legal saga. In Waste Mr. Barker trained his lens on the business of political power, women's role in the power structure and abortion. With the next Presidential election campaign heating up and the fires of the current administration's scandals barely banked, who could ask for anything more timely?
The sexual scandal involving an abortion which is the playwright's device for dramatizing the process of passing a political bill to free money for education led to the play's being banned in 1906. A revised version finally produced in London in 1936 serves as the basis of its US premiere by the Theater for a New Audience. Modern audiences won't recognize the real life role models for Waste and it's no longer so easy to keep a scandal out of the press, but noone will have a hard time finding modern parallels in the hypocritical moral compromisers it portrays.
While Mr. Barker most closely resembles his long time friend and colleague, George Bernard Shaw, his "hero" is an Ibsen-like misogynist whose behavior towards a woman with whom he had an affair make it hard to view his heroism in affairs of state sympathetically. Even with an anti-hero whose tragedy hardly warrants his young aide's pained final outcry about "the waste of him" and some overly talky scenes, seeing it won't be a waste anyone's time. Basically a political melodrama, Waste has the same Shavian drawing room comedy flavor that made the Mint Theater's revival of The Voysey Inheritance one of the highlights of this theatrical season. Like that incisive look at the world of business and the law, this political satire has been graced with a handsome production and a large cast, all of whom bring nuance and flair to their roles.
The drawing room-salon atmosphere is beautifully realized in the first scene which finds us at the country estate of Lady Julia Farrant (played with elegant worldliness by Pamela Nyberg). Four women and one young man are gathered around their hostess playing Chopin on a Baby Grand piano. When the music stops a crisp volley of conversation establishes each woman's character and the political chess game that is the focus of this house party. These are smart women for whom power and influence is still something to be gained through manipulation. Typical of Mr. Sher's smart direction, even the minor characters make major contributions -- as an example, there's Evelyn Page's delicious cameo as Lady Farrant's mother, Countess Mortimer. (Page proves herself as able without a title as with, in a second small part as maid).
Byron Jennings is perfectly cast as the linchpin of the political intrigue, the upstanding and independent Henry Trebell. He is handsome in a throughly aristocratically British way, high-minded and passionate -- intellectually that is. Even more than all the other characters, except his doctor friend Sir Gilbert Wedgecroft (Henry Stram) and the idealistic young Walter Kent (Michael Tisdale), he is emotionally heartless. This is painfully illustrated by his affair with Mrs. Amy O'Connell ( Kristin Flanders). The lovely Amy is married, mostly in name only, to a Sinn Fein sympathizing Irishman, and her aggressive flirtatiousness is unlikely to long separate Trebell from his big true love -- his bill to transfer the church's moneys to the building of schools. Ms. Flanders manages to show us Amy's at once vulnerable and self-serving character. She is beautiful and flirtatious enough to make it easy to see how even the cold-hearted Trebel could be momentarily obsessed with her. It is the disastrous aftermath of the Trebell-Oconnor fling, a pregnancy that ends in a botched abortion, that becomes Trebell's "Monica Problem" -- and, by extension his cynical fellow Tories' dilemma.
There are too many delectable and uncannily relevant bits of dialogue to quote as there are too many fine portraits to more than mention a few: Jordan Charney's Blackborough is the self-satisfied reactionary politician incarnate, as Richard Easton's Lord Cantilupe epitomizes righteousness. Like the already mentioned Evelyn Page, Graeme Malcolm leaves a lasting impression in two small parts, as the the Farrant butler and as the dour, cuckolded Irish husband. Henry Stram and Michael Tisdale are fine as the two "good guys" -- the first as Trebell's doctor friend and the latter as his devoted to the death young secretary. Of the women not yet mentioned, Brenda Wehle brings admirably restrained emotion to the part of Henry's sister, a former teacher who has opted to devote herself to being running her brother's household, a substitute for marriage which neither sibling seems capable of dealing with.
Mr. Sher's design team is as exemplary as the cast and the way he pulls together the many strands of this story. John Arnone's set is grand yet spare, with three large rolling glass doors and just a few period furniture pieces to create three locations and Christopher Akerlind's skillful lighting to set the right mood for each. Martin Pakledinaz has matched the elegance of the set with costumes that seem torn from a fashion magazine of the early twentieth century.
I wish I could urge readers to see Voysey Inheritance as well as Waste, especially since Voysey was virtually flawless and the superior of the two plays, but ironically Voysey closed its run at the Mint Theater just as the Waste opens at the American Place. All I can say don't ignore this second knocking of the opportunity to see a new-old play as timely in this century as the one in which it was written.
CurtainUp's review of the Mint Theater's exemplary revival of Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance. If you click on that review and wonder why the playwright's name is hyphenated there but not here, each review follows the by-line style used by the producing company. Barker's wealthy second wife, a snobbish American named Helen Huntington, persuaded him to drop many of his theatrical friends (including G.B. Shaw) and add a hyphen between his middle and last name. To hyphenate or not has thus become a matter of choice as is evident from these two welcome revivals.