Whether or not you like any particular show produced by the Mint Theater Company, you have to admire the Off-Broadway company’s mission uncovering and presenting extremely obscure plays from the past, a stark contrast to so many revival-oriented companies that tend to produce only the most well-known classics.
Looking over the approximately 50 plays performed at the Mint since 1995, it has offered New Yorkers rare but potentially worthwhile exposure to works by J.M. Barrie, Susan Glaspell, Harley Granville-Barker, S.N. Behrman, D.H. Lawrence, Arthur Schnitzler, Rachel Crothers, John Van Druten, and George Kelly. (Don’t expect the Roundabout to do any of these plays anytime soon. If you recall, the Roundabout could barely attract a crowd to Sophie Treadwell’s comparatively better-known Machinal two years ago in spite of solid reviews.)
The Mint has kicked off its new season with The New Morality, a three-act English comedy of manners from 1911 by Harold Chapin, a long-forgotten playwright born in Brooklyn in 1886 who had a few comedies produced in London and died in 1915 while fighting in France during World War I. The New Morality was not even performed during his lifetime. It was finally done in London in 1920 and on Broadway the following year for five performances. It has not been seen in New York since then.
In The New Morality, a summer evening on a houseboat parked along the Thames is shaken up by the news that the fashionable, strong-willed Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney) has vigorously insulted fellow female Muriel Wister, supposedly because Muriel (who is never seen during the play) tempted Betty’s husband Ivor (Michael Frederic), a former colonel, to wait on her hand and foot, causing embarrassment for Betty. The even-tempered Ivor will not believe or accept Betty’s rationale, insisting that Betty must have done it out of jealousy, or under the belief that he and Muriel are having an affair.
What makes matters worse is Betty’s refusal to apologize for the outburst. According to the woman’s nervous, unsure husband Wallace (Ned Noyes), his wife is ready to pursue legal action against Betty if she will not apologize, but Betty just laughs off the legal threat. In fact, she’d rather go to jail for six months than apologize, leaving Ivor further perplexed. Betty’s brother Belasis (Christian Campbell, best known for the musical Reefer Madness), an attorney, offers some sarcastic observations on the law of libel.
By the dinner party of act three, Betty is still sticking to her guns, while Ivor is still perplexed, and Wallace has gotten flat-out drunk out of frustration. Eventually, Betty makes a passionate defense of her modern ideals, her so-called “new morality,” and there’s hope for reconciliation for her and Ivor.
As intimately staged by Mint artistic director Jonathan Banks around a spare but atmospheric set design, this fine production is unlikely to make anyone believe that a diamond in the rough has been unearthed. The obstinate Betty makes for a fascinating and mysterious character (as portrayed with a cool edge and an underlying vulnerability by Meaney), The New Morality comes off today as rather flat and lacking in action or plot development. There are some intriguing lines that recall the wit of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but any shock value that the play had a hundred years ago is long gone. And although the play was written in three acts, since each is only a half hour long, it would flow better today without two intermissions.