February 22, 2007

What if the hottest British import of the moment weren’t Tom Stoppard but Harley Granville-Barker? Stoppard may be the hoity-toity choice, but it’s the audiences leaving Granville-Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance and this new production of The Madras House that are more likely to be excited.

Written in 1909, The Madras House is a play of ideas that, unlike more hyped works, hasn’t forgotten to develop real characters and give them actual drama to chew on. Happily, the Mint Theater’s staging, ably directed by Gus Kaikkonen and featuring an excellent troupe of actors, makes the most of Granville-Barker’s cogent themes.

The plot centers around the Huxtable family, which owns the titular department store and rules over its employees like a benevolent dictatorship. There are flies in the ointment, however: Paterfamilias Henry (Jonathan Hogan) feels overwhelmed both by his swarm of daughters and by evolving morals; his liberal-minded nephew Philip (Thomas Hammond) wants to enter politics and change the world; and the clan must deal with a visit from Philip’s philandering father, Constantine (George Morfogen), who abandoned his wife (Roberta Maxwell), converted to “Mohammedism” and now lives in Arabia. The characters talk and debate constantly through four acts, but defying conventional theatrical wisdom, none of them is changed by the end of the evening. Yet the arguments are so vividly written and the sexual and social tensions they reveal so bracing, that you’ll be surprised by how fast these three hours go by.