The New Morality

September 21, 2015

In circles of theater historians, the dramatist Harold Chapin is considered one of the greatest talents to be lost in World War I. Born in Brooklyn in 1886 and raised in England, Chapin was an actor first, appearing in several West End shows before setting his sights on playwriting. In his lifetime (which was cut short during battle in 1915), he saw several of his works produced, but there was one that got away.

That was The New Morality, which played only a handful of performances in London and on Broadway in 1921. In honor of the centenary of Chapin’s death, the comedy is currently being presented by off-Broadway’s Mint Theater, an organization known for excavating ignored theatrical works such as this.

Set aboard a houseboat on the Thames in 1911, The New Morality takes place in the aftermath of an incident that could tear the community apart. Having spent the entire summer watching her husband lavish attention on their neighbor Muriel (whom we never meet), Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney) tells the woman off in a particularly indecent manner. Betty’s husband, Colonel Ivor Jones (Michael Frederic), is rankled, but not as much as Muriel’s husband, E. Wallace Wister (Ned Noyes), who goes so far as to threaten legal action when Betty won’t apologize. Will dignity be restored to the opposing households?

In the hands of Mint Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, The New Morality is honored with a lavishly crafted production. The cast is keenly attuned to the style of the text, which often shifts from light comedy to serious drama without much warning. Meaney is strong and steadfast as a woman who believes she has been wronged. Frederic impressively provides several different shades of exasperation for a character whose single personality trait is “angry.” Noyes nearly steals the show in a tour-de-force third-act drunk scene. This mounting also makes a welcome return to the New York stage for Christian Campbell, who takes on the small and unshowy role of Betty’s barrister brother, Geoffrey.

Bank’s creative team provides generally handsome design work. Carisa Kelly provides smart summer suits for the men, though strangely shapeless pre-flapper dresses for the women. Christian DeAngelis’ lighting nicely charts the sun’s positions during an afternoon on the river. Jane Shaw contributes a sparkling musical score reminiscent of a 1980s BBC film. Best of all is Steven Kemp’s set, which transforms during the first of two 10-minute intermissions from Betty’s small underground bedroom to the deluxe and airy deck of the Jones’ liner.

But the play itself leaves much to be desired. Strategically placed bons mots don’t always equal real wit (“Women are queer cattle” is a fine example of a punch line that goes nowhere fast), and long speeches don’t always make deep statements. The wafer-thin New Morality can hardly compare with the alternately funny and thought-provoking work of other playwrights from the time, like George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps that explains why it played for less than a month upon its first New York outing, and has remained on the shelves since.