May 24, 2001

It’s too bad, really: a bright young woman saves an ”incredibly dense” oaf from himself in ”Diana of Dobson’s.” But then she had to do it if Cicely Hamilton’s point was to be made in this 1908 comedy of manners that was written to raise public wrath over the plight of slave-wage women in the London garment industry.

It worked as propaganda; reform followed. More remarkably, it works well onstage in the Mint Theater Company’s revival under Eleanor Reissa’s direction.

Diana and other female clerks live above the linen shop where they work. In their dormitory they are tyrannized by a company harridan, and the play’s opening scene lets the women rehearse the litany of social and sexual injustice of the age in dialogue that is often witty. A windfall inheritance of £300 suddenly lets Diana spend a month in a Swiss resort, where she falls in with middle-class idlers as ridiculous as they are rapacious.

She tells them she is a widow, and that one fib is enough for two matrons to persuade themselves she is rich, a fine match for the vacant nephew of one of them who could use some extra income. (He is an army captain whose annual pay is 46 times as much as Diana’s.) A romantic pursuit lasts until Diana’s money runs out and she opens her suitor’s eyes to the social realities of smug Edwardian England.

This is surprisingly fresh entertainment. Hamilton was a smart imitator of good dialogue from Victorian novels and plays, and the director and cast here give it snap.

Rachel Sledd makes Diana not a nice woman, but a commanding one: brainy, sometimes bitchy and justifiably angry at society’s obtuseness.

Mikel Sarah Lambert and Glynis Bell as the fortune-hunting matrons are a marvelously matched pair, so skilled in glance and gesture that they could keep us laughing for two hours even if Hamilton had not given them memorably foolish lines.

If Karl Kenzler cannot quite turn the stupid captain into an alert liberal in a few minutes’ time, well, the task would defeat anyone. And Hamilton, who was a militant feminist of that era, doesn’t let any of the men in this play escape from the suspicion of simple-mindedness.