February 16, 2007

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Two of Harley Granville-Barker’s plays are running off-Broadway. To fully appreciate the unlikeliness of that coincidence, you have to know that Granville-Barker, who died in 1946, was a British playwright and director whose once-popular “problem plays” about Edwardian England and its social discontents are mostly long forgotten. “The Madras House,” for instance, was last seen in New York 86 years ago. Now the Mint Theater Company, whose smartly mounted revivals of neglected but worthy plays have put it on the map, has given “The Madras House” a staging of the highest possible quality, and guess what? It’s a terrific play.

The only reason why this doesn’t surprise me is that I’m one of the many New York theatergoers to have been thrilled by the Atlantic Theater Company’s similarly impressive and hugely successful revival of “The Voysey Inheritance,” Granville-Barker’s best-remembered play, which opened in December and has since been extended three times (it closes March 25). “The Madras House,” written in 1909, is another school-of-Shaw play of ideas about a stageful of talkative characters who have come to question the cast-iron moral certitudes of their Victorian forebears. This time around, the parties in question are the well-heeled owners of a family-run department store in London, and the nagging doubts with which they find themselves beset prove to be the stuff of high drama — and much laughter.

Granville-Barker may have been an egghead, but he was also a shrewd and knowing man of the theater, and he filled “The Madras House” with fascinatingly complicated characters, each of whom receives a turn in the limelight and a hatful of showy lines (“I have unconventional opinions. But I don’t do unconventional things”). Such plays demand first-class acting to make their mark, and Gus Kaikkonen, who directed the Mint’s 1999 revival of “The Voysey Inheritance,” has put together an uncommonly fine ensemble cast for “The Madras House,” of whom Mary Bacon, Thomas Hammond and George Morfogen make the strongest impressions, in part because they have the flashiest roles. Not only is Mr. Kaikkonen’s direction glisteningly exact, but Charles Morgan has somehow managed to cram four different sets onto the Mint Theater’s shoebox-sized stage, a trick I would have assumed to be physically impossible had I not beheld it with my own amazed eyes.

I’ve never seen a bad show at the Mint, whose revivals of Rachel Crothers’s “Susan and God” and John Galsworthy’s “The Skin Game” are among the finest productions I’ve reviewed in this space. To that roll of honor I now add “The Madras House.” Cheers to the Mint Theater for bringing it back to the New York stage — and doing it in style.