Saturday, September 26, 2015

The New Morality

Harold Chapin's The New Morality, the slight but delightful piece from 1915 currently on view at The Mint, resembles an Oscar Wilde play if Wilde wrote about (almost) real people.

Brenda Meaney
Photo: Richard Termine
Betty Jones has taken to her bed and refused a meal to perform a level of repentance she doesn't feel. Her crime? She unloaded on Muriel, the woman with whom her husband has been flirting all summer. She acknowledges to her good friend Alice that some of her language would be better left to dog shows, and she admits that she was probably pretty loud. She thanks Alice for visiting at risk to her own reputation.

And then Muriel's husband Wallace shows up, demanding that Betty apologize.

Chapin uses this thin plot as a skeleton for discussions of sexual politics, society, and the meaning of fidelity. He fleshes it out with scores of very funny lines. His take on sexual politics is fascinating, since it exists in a world that probably never was: the gorgeous homes of independently wealthy people, taken care of by servants, where women rule the roost and men fecklessly try to figure them out. Chapin ignores the true power that men have and had, particularly 100 years ago, yet there is a level on which his sense of sexual politics is advanced and even vaguely feminist. (Chapin was killed in World War I, one of the millions of tragic casualties of that stupid and useless war, so there's no way of knowing how his work would have developed.)

The New Morality is a fast-moving 1:50 (including two intermissions) that goes down like cotton candy. What keeps it rooted in a sort of reality is Brenda Meaney's savvy performance as Betty. Meaney shows the pain under the petulance, while nailing every fabulous line. It's a terrific performance.

The rest of the cast, with one exception, is also top-notch. Michael Frederic blusters effectively as Betty's husband, who eventually has to accept that he has been behaving badly. He maintains a reality under the bluster that helps add dimension to the play. Clemmie Evans is lovely as Alice, an innocent who's much sharper than she looks; Evans spends must of the play listening, and she does it superbly. She is always present, and her reactions to other people are a significant part of the evening. Ned Noyes as Wallace has the sort of monologue that must be scary/thrilling to do. It's long, involved, important, funny, political, silly, and smart, and he nails it. Douglas Rees and Kelly McCready are fine in small roles as the servants. Only Christian Campbell, as Betty's brother, disappoints. His delivery is squishy, and it's often difficult to figure out what he's saying. This is not just about enunciation--the timing of his line readings does nothing to communicate their meaning.

It's always fun to see what The Mint designers do with their small space and (I assume) limited budgets, and as usual, they do quite a lot. Steven Kemp's sets provide a comfortable sense of people living well; Carisa Kelly's costumes are attractive and appropriate; Christian DeAngelis's lights feel right for the river on which the characters live; and Jane Shaw's music and sound are nicely chosen/created to provide a sense of time and place. Director Jonathan Bank's work is my favorite sort of direction: all decisions are made in honor of the play. (A small detail: the show should end with a kiss, not with preparation for the curtain call...)

I saw The New Morality with my 23-year-old nephew, who has seen and done a lot of theatre, but nothing like this. He loved the straightforward story-telling, the period detail, the humor, and the accessibility. Plays like The New Morality aren't written anymore, but they have much to offer and should be seen. So, once again, thanks to the invaluable Mint.

(press ticket; 4th row on the aisle)

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