Mint Theater Company producing artistic director Jonathan Bank continues apace his compulsive rooting around for overlooked playwrights. As this season's opener, he's come up with English dramatist-actor Harold Chapin, who wrote most of his works between 1910 and 1914 and, having died on the battlefield in 1915, has been all but forgotten since then.
Now, however, Bank has put on his director's cap--give him a hearty pat on the back for his double capacity here yet again--and dusted off The New Morality, a Chapin play that went unproduced in his life time, was at last shown briefly in1920 and then not very often afterwards.
Presented in three acts that with two intermissions hardly take up two hours, the play unfolds during the well-publicized, unusually hot 1911 summer and on a nicely appointed houseboat, appointed here by designer Steven Kemp.
Curiously, although there's a program note that carries on about that heat wave, Bank never has his actors play the soaring temperature. These stalwarts, upstairs and down, are the sorts of British folks who may be hot under the collar and elsewhere but make a show of not showing it.
All right, that's not quite accurate. When nearly-quick-as-a-wink act one commences, Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney) is surprised that her friend Alice Meynell (Clemmie Evans) has paid a call. The reason for her surprise is that shortly before the play begins, Betty has given houseboat neighbor Muriel Wister, who remains unseen, a no-holds-barred dressing down for making eyes at her husband, Col. Ivor Jones (Michael Frederic).
Assuming she's become persona non grata up and down the river, Betty is not so much abashed as proud of her behavior, and the rest of act one and quick-as-a-wink acts two and three concern how stuffy hubby Ivor, Betty's brother Geoffrey Belasis (Christian Campbell) and Muriel's seemingly silly husband, E. Wallace Wister (Ned Noyes), deal with the societally awkward situation.
Truth to tell, were it not that the cast performs so stylishly, The New Morality through the first two acts would seem terribly slight. But as Bank guides them and as Carisa Kelly dresses them, they prove that while gossamer is a fragile material, it can also be alluring.
During the third act, though, when Betty and Ivor, though under marital strain, are entertaining Alice and Belasis--with man-servant Wooten (Douglas Rees) and maid Lesceline (Kelly McReady) seeing to their needs--chatty Wister ingratiates himself at the table and proceeds to take control of things. Moved to speak about women--thereby suggesting playwright Chapin is among the early feminist men during the Suffragette era--he lights a fire under the diners and, more than that, under the entire play.
On he goes, longwindedly but mesmerizingly, spouting among other encomia to the female sex, "Women have raised themselves a tremendous distance already. Look how immaterially we speak about them. You never talk about a modern woman's physique, do you? No. You talk about her charm. Abstract! Abstract! You don't mind whether she is beautiful or not--is she smart? Abstract again! You think of her complexion, not her face, her figure, not her body--I tell you, women are the real aesthetics!!"
Suddenly, an opus that had seemed as if it, too, had been afflicted by the 1911 torpor, acquires a July-August glow. Attendees who may have thought they needed no more Chapin from Bank could now be wondering what else of his is gathering dust at the back of various shelves.
It can't be that Thomas Bradshaw has it in mind to make Fulfillment, his new play at The Flea, into a public service announcement for Alcoholics Anonymous. It certainly seems that way, however, when protagonist Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe), the only black associate at his prestigious law firm, is lectured by colleague Sarah (Susannah Flood) about AA benefits in what program members would term "twelve-stepping."
It also can't be that Bradshaw intends Fulfillment to be an exposé of the drawbacks inherent in Manhattan's proliferating luxury high-rises. Yet, as the action starts, Michael has seen his way clear to pay $1.5 million for a 700-square-foot-plus one-bedroom only to find out when he's moved in that there's a reason why wall-to-wall carpeting is a house rule. What goes on in the carpetless apartment above him, which houses a young girl who loves nothing better than to run back and forth, begins outraging him.
No. In Fulfillment--the title in meant to be ironic--what Bradshaw is really after is demonstrating how easily a master of the universe can fail to master the heady universe in which he thought he'd positioned himself to live well.
In a series of scenes taking place on Brian Sidney Bembridge's wide set where the actors, doubling as stagehands, constantly move furniture, Michael increasingly loses control of himself. Much of his unraveling concerns unsuccessful attempts to get the better of upstairs, noise-making neighbor Leonard (Jeff Biehl).
A drinker and eventually cocaine abuser, Michael improves himself for a short while, because he's been informed that attending AA will help him become a law-firm partner. Unfortunately, his proclivities eventually undo him. In addition, the drastic downfall affects his relationship with the libidinous Sarah, about whom the audience is not only told of her need to be spanked but shown as much.
(Theatergoers now going "Oh, no, not again" are undoubtedly thinking of Robert Askins's recent Permission, which also involved women who love to be spanked. Is it a trend? Will it pass? We can hope.)
Those who know their Bradshaw know he thinks being sexually graphic is a great way to push stage limits. So he not only asks Akinnagbe and Flood to strip and simulate intercourse (they are simulating, aren't they?) a few times, he also contrives to get the boastfully promiscuous Sarah into bed with Michael's best friend Simon (Christian Conn) for more bare-naked tumbling.
It may be that playwright Bradshaw considers himself super-sophisticated about the ways of the contemporary world--racism in the workplace comes up, featuring duplicitous law-firm partner Mark (Peter McCabe)--and, as directed by Ethan McSweeny, a patina of sophistication is manifest. Before he reaches his fadeout, however, Bradshaw has pushed his play too far past credulity to make any convincing observations about how we all live now.