June 30, 2006

The most interesting thing about playgoing in New York isn’t Broadway — exciting though it can be — but the plethora of tiny off-Broadway troupes that make magic on the cheap. The Mint Theater Company, one of the best, specializes in neglected plays deserving of a second chance, which it performs in a coffin-shaped room on the third floor of a dingy office building in the Theater District. The Mint’s productions are always worthy and often revelatory, never more so than in the case of Rachel Crothers’ “Susan and God,” a long-lost Broadway smash from 1937 that wowed the critics, played to packed houses, was filmed by MGM, then sank from sight. This is its first New York revival since 1943, and it is a major event, a pitch-perfect production of a 69-year-old play whose subject matter is so modern in flavor that it could have been written last week.

If you haven’t heard of Crothers, you’re not alone. Until I saw “Susan and God,” she was only a name to me. Yet between 1906 and her death in 1958, more than 30 of her plays were produced on Broadway, and many of them were hugely successful — with good reason, judging by this one. The Susan of the title is a highflying socialite (Leslie Hendrix) who gets religion, decides to convert her fancy friends, and discovers that she’s better at talking the talk than walking the walk. It’s a quintessentially well-made three-act play in which firecracker-like surprises are set off at carefully calculated intervals. But Crothers’s ascot-wearing characters turn out to be deeper than they look, and there is nothing at all obvious about the hard-earned denouement she pulls off with the practiced skill of a very old pro.

What makes “Susan and God” so fresh? Part of its immediacy arises from the close resemblance of Susan’s new-found beliefs to the New Age spirituality-without-tears that so many latter-day Susans have embraced. (The unnamed religious movement she joins is the Oxford Group, a once-celebrated British organization from which the American founders of Alcoholics Anonymous drew inspiration.) No less important, though, is the sharp-edged damn-you-darling repartee with which the script is strewn: “I’ve never been sure whether Barrie drinks because Susan’s tired of him — or Susan’s tired of him because he drinks.” It’s all very, very ’30s, and all the more effective when things start to get serious.

Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s artistic director, has staged “Susan and God” with a winning blend of fizz and feeling. Ms. Hendrix couldn’t be better as Susan, while Timothy Deenihan is memorably subtle as Barrie, her alcoholic husband. Jennifer Blood is dead on target as Blossom, their mousy, miserable daughter, and the rest of the cast ranges from good to great. I was especially impressed by Katie Firth, who plays an ungrateful good-egg supporting role with enviable skill. The sets, designed by Nathan Heverin, are simple but pleasing, and the program contains an essay about “Susan and God” written by Crothers for the New York Times shortly after the play’s Broadway opening.

Don’t be put off by the low-budget trappings of “Susan and God.” It’s one of the strongest shows in town, a brilliant revival of a play that should never have been forgotten in the first place — just the sort of thing for which the Mint Theater Company is rightly renowned.