Since 1995 the Mint Theater Company has been exhuming forgotten plays, sometimes by world-renowned authors. Two I recall are The Power of Darkness, by Leo Tolstoy, and The Fifth Column, by Ernest Hemingway. While of definite interest, neither left you wishing that these eminent scribes had given up their day jobs to pursue the footlights. The unknown Harold Chapin, the Brooklyn-born, Britain-bred playwright of The New Morality, was clearly better suited to the stage. But a hero’s death during the First World War, almost a century to the day of my writing this, robbed us of a promising career.
The New Morality, the 29-year-old Chapin’s final play, was completed before his death in 1915 but not produced in London until 1920, followed by its Broadway bow in 1921. One hundred years later it reemerges as a bright and witty romp, “wispy” as a friend and fellow critic noted, but a pleasant diversion nonetheless.
The play is set on a houseboat moored on the Thames, and its three short acts take us from a late afternoon to early evening. It’s been a terribly hot summer, and temperatures are indeed rising. Below deck, Betty (Brenda Meaney) is cooling her heels after having insulted a member of her small and clubby riverside community. Her husband, Ivor (Michael Frederic), is quietly aghast when he hears of the transgression, and tries to arrange a truce with the wronged woman’s husband, Wister (Ned Noyes), before dinner. This proves difficult, as Wister is a tippler given to making long, embarrassing speeches about men and women–and Ivor is something of the architect of the faux pas, as he seemed to be hitting on Wister’s (unseen) wife, or wasn’t doing very much to resist her attention. Betty’s brother Geoffrey, a lawyer (Christian Campbell) and best friend Alice (Clemmie Evans) try to calm the turbulent waters.
Chapin was posthumously compared to Oscar Wilde, and there’s dab of George Bernard Shaw to The New Morality besides. While impossible to predict how he might have developed, it’s safe to say that this revival is good-quality Chapin, deftly acted and limpidly directed by the Mint’s producing artistic director, Jonathan Bank, and as always beautifully realized on the company’s small stage. Arrange a few Chinese lanterns, add in some well-chosen sound effects, and you’re on the Thames for civilized battle of the sexes.
Cocktails abound in the production, and I highly advise heading out to a Times Square bistro once The New Morality, which goes down easily, has ended. Meanwhile, enjoy a taste of Mint via PBS, which presents its recent, highly acclaimed production of Ferenc Molnar’s Fashions for Men on October 15.