May 19, 2004

Before there was Winnie-the-Pooh, even before there was Toad of Toad Hall, there were Carraway Pim and Oliver Blayds. In what is clearly a labor of love for the director Jonathan Bank, the Mint Theater Company is seeking to reintroduce New York audiences to A. A. Milne the playwright with spiffy new productions of ”Mr. Pim Passes By” and ”The Truth About Blayds.”

Milne, who was an assistant editor of the humor magazine Punch until the outbreak of World War I, returned from the war to begin a career as a playwright, turning out West End comedies with undertones of social satire that some critics compared with Shaw and Wilde. Then in 1926 Milne came out with a children’s book called ”Winnie-the-Pooh,” and his playwriting was history. Seeing ”Mr. Pim” and ”Blayds” in repertory reveals Milne as an able craftsman with a droll sense of humor whose work qualifies under the Mint’s mission of presenting ”worthy but neglected” plays. But while they maintain a valid theatrical vitality, they are not exactly a lost gold mine either. Think of them as Shaw lite.

Like many of his contemporaries, Milne relied on certain formulas. The plays involve clever, upper-middle-class families who occupy London drawing rooms or country houses. There is usually a dark secret hidden in the cupboard, and circumstance or coincidence assists the denouement. Along the way a social or ethical problem may crop up, and the characters will debate it politely, but not in any depth. All will end well.

Mr. Bank, who has directed, uses the same cast in both plays, which only underlines the similarity in the characters. A handsome unit set, designed by Sarah Lambert, adds to the sense that whether they take place in town or country, there is not much variation in the plays’ structure. In the Portland Square setting for ”Blayds” a warm, wood-paneled room is decorated with oil paintings and features double doors concealing a library of leather-bound volumes; the same room is adorned with crossed swords, a mounted fish and a deer’s head for ”Mr. Pim,” with the double doors opening out on sunny Buckinghamshire.

The most amusing of the two offerings is ”Mr. Pim Passes By,” Milne’s first big success. As the title aptly describes, Mr. Pim is a passer-by who drops in on the country house of George Marden. In the course of some light banter, he discloses the news that the first husband of Marden’s wife, Olivia, long presumed dead in Australia, is, in fact, alive. Or is he? Marden, a pillar of the shire, only wants to do the right thing in the eyes of the church and county. A subplot involves his niece, Dinah, who wants to marry an aspiring, penniless artist, a prospect to which Marden is adamantly opposed. There is lively argument over the proper way to deal with bigamy, and whether a girl should have the right to marry whomever she chooses.

”The Truth About Blayds” is a domestic melodrama posing as a moral dilemma. Oliver Blayds is a world-famous poet who knew Tennyson and was received by Queen Victoria. Celebrating his 90th birthday, he receives the accolades of younger poets in the person of A. L. Royce (as given in the program, but isn’t it surely meant to be A. L. Rowse?).

Old resentments are aired and secrets are disclosed. One is that Blayds’s younger daughter, Isobel, once declined a proposal of marriage from Royce in favor of nursing her father. Then the old man, with virtually his dying breath, confesses to Isobel that he never wrote any of the poetry for which he was famous but took the work of a school chum who died in his youth and left volumes of verse behind. Or did he? Once again a family must decide the proper thing to do, and while plagiarism is a concern very much alive in the world today, the Blayds family debate centers mostly on what should be done with the money from the royalties.

The accomplished Mint cast brings the characters to life, even if they are rather stereotypically drawn by Milne. Lisa Bostnar, a Mint veteran, is delightful as the clever and wise Olivia in ”Pim” and has one of the best moments in either play as Isobel in ”Blayds” when she rues her decision to reject marriage. Stephen Schnetzer is admirably ardent as Royce in ”Blayds,” but as Marden, who is meant to be a lovable stuffed shirt, he could use a bit more starch. Jack Ryland is excellent in the title role of ”Blayds.”

Victoria Mack, another Mint regular who always brightens the stage, is pertly irreverent as Blayds’s granddaughter and prettily headstrong as Dinah in ”Pim.” Jack Davidson is enigmatically absent-minded in the title role of ”Pim” and bristles with an appropriately stiff upper lip as Blayds’s son-in-law. These are the sort of plays by which Londoners tried to forget the horrors of World War I. In the Mint’s smooth productions they can offer New Yorkers a couple of hours’ diversion from today’s headlines.