February 16, 2007

Where has Harley Granville-Barker been all our lives? How is it possible that theater lovers cherish their Shaw and honor their Ibsen, but this shrewd and witty, eerily prescient modern master has slipped through the gaps of 20th century cultural history?

Seven years ago, we were stunned by the power of “Waste,” the British playwright’s little-known 1907 shocker about abortion and politics. A few months ago, we were almost as tightly gripped by “The Voysey Inheritance,” his 1905 bombshell about high-end financial fraud. That adaptation, condensed by no less a troublemaker than David Mamet, still is running at the Atlantic Theater.

Now the Mint Theater Company, which has also produced its own complete “Voysey,” adds a delightful and important production of “The Madras House” to the unfolding story of my new theater hero. Written in 1910 and not seen in New York since 1921, this one has Granville-Barker grappling with sexual inequality in Edwardian England and beyond.

How far beyond? Oh, one of the main characters (George Morfogen), once the top designer and owner of the Madras fashion house, shows up after intermission to announce he has converted to “Mahommedanism” and keeps his many wives away from public view in a place “not far from the ruins of Babylon” – namely, Iraq.

He has returned for the sale of the high-end business that he and his more conventional brother-in-law (Jonathan Hogan) began years earlier. Son Philip (Thomas Hammond) wants to give up the family privilege to help the poor through local politics. As he puts it, “We good and clever people are costing the world too much.”

This is a big play, not just because it runs three hours and requires a crowd of accomplished actors who can handle the stylish language and look handsome in the rich, unforgiving costumes (beautifully designed by Clint Ramos).

Like his friend and colleague Shaw, Granville-Barker specialized in what we now call plays of ideas. As Philip tells his more easygoing friend (Mark L. Montgomery), “There are two ways to judge a man’s character: his attitude toward money and his attitude toward women.”

Under Gus Kaikkonen’s sure direction, multiple attitudes about both are represented with casual complexity in fancy locations elegantly designed for the tiny stage by Charles Morgan. In the uncle’s drawing room, we meet the man’s six unmarried daughters – well-kept objects in varying degrees of desperation. Philip’s sad, conventional mother (Roberta Maxwell) is hoping her philandering husband will return to live out their years together.

At the family business, we meet the oppressed live-in employees, virtual slaves to fashion, and the headstrong Miss Yates (Mary Bacon) who won’t apologize for getting pregnant. She thought she’d raise her son as her nephew “like those Popes in Rome used to do.” The third act, a hoot, includes a fashion show as dehumanizing as anything in Fashion Week. Philip urges his intelligent showpiece of a wife (Lisa Bostnar) to leave the house with him. Granville-Barker gets a little preachy at the end, but leaves us wanting more.