As an avid theatergoer, you’re undoubtedly familiar with comedies of manners. But now, at last, in this reclaimed relic from 1933, you have the chance to see a comedy of morals.
Acclaimed character actor and playwright Miles Malleson (you might have seen him in films like The Thief of Baghdad or Kind Hearts and Coronets) was a staunch believer in open marriage, a view he explored not only in his own life and three marriages, but also in this hitherto unproduced “un-romantic comedy” brought to life 48 years after its author’s death by the Mint Theater Company. Malleson’s own practice of what this play manages to avoid preaching and experience with the real-life complexities of living in an open marriage clearly inform this work, even as they may have delayed its production.
As the play begins, we see, contrapuntally, blocked and depressed writer Stephen (a rather neurasthenic Max von Essen) railing against his self-righteous father and minister, Gordon (John Hutton), and the self-same father grousing about his insufficiently moral son. Soothing both pater and filius and unruffling feathers wherever she goes is the seraphic Anne (Elisabeth Gray), Stephen’s self assured wife of eight blissful years. But despite an excess of saintliness reminiscent of Shaw’s Candida, Anne does manage to shock us as her gently urging her husband to get away for a while morphs unmistakably into giving him permission – if not a downright order – to have an affair. Indeed, when she comes upon him pressing his attentions on her lonely, widowed friend Diana (Mikaela Izquierdo), she flat-out gives them her blessing. Anne and Stephen, who run a progressive school together, are wedded not only to one another, but to the ideal of open marriage.
Things develop, but the conduct of all concerned with this affair-in-the-making remains relentlessly well mannered, in its way. Anne encourages her doting husband, who dutifully repeats how much her kindness impresses him and makes him love her more. And Diana demands reassurance from her friend that she is, indeed, willing to share the affections of her husband, and receives an airy recap of the couple’s progressive, promiscuous relationship, including a rundown of Anne’s own (husband-approved) infidelities.
But of course, things get complicated. The trouble is, Anne finds, to her utter chagrin, as she confesses to Alan (Todd Cerveris), her erstwhile lover and still a family friend, she’s finding it a lot harder to be cheated upon. And, shameful though she considers it, she discovers that she is wildly jealous of the husband and friend she’s been urging together.
Only 16 years shy of a century since it was written, the play is still able to startle sensibilities and even raise eyebrows, and director Jonathan Banks’ beautifully detailed production is probably wise in accentuating the complex human emotions of these characters over the dubious comedy as they find that it’s far more difficult than they’d realized to actually live out their lofty ideals. Perhaps this reflects the biographical complications of Malleson’s own life, but the result is far less comic than curious, and one can’t help wondering what kind of hothouse these fainting violets were raised in that they’d so underestimated the power of the green-eyed monster that threatens to overcome first Anne and later Stephen. Nonetheless, the drama may be all the more interesting for its reluctance to gloss over the difficulties of living up to the principles in which the playwright believed so strongly.
The difficulties seem only to be exacerbated by the choice of von Essen as Stephen. He adopts an incessant nervous laugh as a character note and appears to have no chemistry with either actress, rendering all the action somewhat academic-feeling. But Izquierdo, though she seems a little awkward in the period, is nonetheless a charming choice, and Gray is an utterly elegant embodiment of the indulgent wife suddenly realizing she may have given away more than she meant to. Indeed, in her striking final scene with her husband, Gray’s Anne does more than just turn the tables. She turns out to be truer to her ideals than to her husband – which was always the risk he ran. Ironically – or perhaps not so ironically – the upshot is that monogamy seems like the far simpler choice in the end.