Mint Theatre, Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through February 18 +
"Sometimes it seems drama is such a passing business. A performance is given, a picture screened then probably forgotten. Only occasionally do you hear that something is remembered, and then you feel you may have added a little to the knowledge about the stuff of life."
How prescient for British playwright Miles Malleson to have penned this thought decades ago and for the Mint's artistic director Jonathan Bank to prove him true.
More than 80 years after Malleson wrote "Yours Unfaithfully," it finally enjoyed its world premiere at the Mint Theatre in New York last Thursday night. This compelling, finely-tuned drama, beautifully acted, begs the question: why did it take so long to see the light of stage?
After attending performances of short pieces of Malleson's in London, Mr. Bank, whose agenda over the past 20 years has been to discover lost plays, started sifting through other works of the playwright. He stumbled across this unknown gem about the timeless question of how to keep a marriage vital.
"When you strike a match on a box, which begins the flame?" asks Anne (the classically beautiful Elizabeth Gray) to her husband Stephen (Max von Essen), who's in a funk.
Far from suggesting either being part of this combustible equation, Anne plainly tells Stephen to do whatever it takes to rekindle his spirit. And from there on, the horse is out of the barn.
While all on stage agree (our couple included) that their's is among the healthiest marriages around, what puzzles initially is why one would believe extracurricular activity would help rekindle a spark without great risk.
Getting the playwright thinking along such lines likely came from his first marriage to a creative, powerhouse of a woman who was as beautiful as he was homely. (Think Alfred Hitchcock.) An open marriage was settled on, and by the end of his days, Malleson was on his third wife.
Don't mistake this for a whimsical thesis to drive a drama or to pay the bills (it certainly didn't do that). Malleson was regarded as "a playwright of provocative wit, searching insight, and a sense of ethical passion," by the Manchester Guardian. The play takes on the challenging task of exploring how much give a marriage bond must have to be sustainable?
We're provided various thoughts on the matter, from Stephen's reverend father (John Hutton) who offers the puritanical take to Dr. Kirby (psychiatrist, Todd Ceveris) who quips, "what we think we feel... that's as near as most of us get."
While everyone in the audience will have their own thoughts about what's going on, the play explores undeniable truths: life is made more difficult the more you try to get out of it; how partners' emotions can often be out of sync; there can be no true love without sacrifice; and there is pain in knowing too much.
This last point is the dramatic crescendo of the evening, several wordless minutes of an anxious, jealous spouse restlessly waiting the return of the other with background lights and noises of a London night filing a dark void.
The directness in which Malleson attacks his subject reminds how, just two generations earlier, Thomas Hardy approached the subject of marriage in his extraordinary, "Jude the Obscure." Hardy was burned in effigy for speaking so plainly, which "cured" the author of further novel writing. And perhaps for similar Victorian reason, Malleson never saw his play performed.
For a work that speaks to "men and women of full age, which attempts to deal unaffectedly with the fret and fever, derision and disaster that may press in the wake of the strongest passion known to humanity; to tell, without a mincing of words of a deadly war waged between the flesh and spirit; and to point the tragedy of unfulfilled aims, I am not aware that there is anything in the handling to which exception can be taken."
Hardy's preface to his story serves well to explain Malleson's more modest but daring tale about love, passion, and survival.