The New York Times

Review: ‘The New Morality,’ a Vintage Play at the Mint

September 24, 2015

In the third act of Harold Chapin’s “The New Morality,” a prewar artifact excavated by the Mint Theater Company, our heroine, Betty, prepares a late summer cocktail called a hock cup: She mixes white wine with maraschino liqueur, Cointreau, brandy and a whisper of soda water, muddling the lot with strawberries and cucumber. It’s a wonder audiences don’t rush the stage for a glass.

As a playwright, Chapin barely got a round in. One hundred years ago, he died heroically, at 29, as a stretcher-bearer in France. If he had lived, he might have been quite the mixologist — and no mean playwright either.

There’s a fair amount of mixing and mingling in this comedy of marital ethics anchored on a Thames houseboat. The script combines a jigger or two of Harley Granville Barker, a measure of Shaw, a dash of Wilde and stirs as needed. As the play begins, Betty has just insulted the woman whom her husband, Ivor, a recently retired colonel, has been fawning over. Did Betty loose her tirade because she is basely jealous or because, as a high-minded creature, she expects better of her husband?

The writing is charming and finely observed, with only a tinge of must. (One of the best jokes is about the Boers.) The direction, by the Mint’s artistic director, Jonathan Bank, is appealing and apposite. The acting is adept, with particularly impressive turns by Brenda Meaney as Betty and Ned Noyes as the husband of her putative rival. Ms. Meaney manages to convey both Betty’s self-dramatizing wit and the seam of real pain that underlies it, steadying a volatile character. Mr. Noyes, a Mint veteran and marvelous comedian, has a ridiculous and glorious drunken scene. I sincerely hope he rehearsed it with several of those cocktails.

But ultimately the play isn’t especially high-proof, too tidy and conventional. The arguments about men and women and marriage seem intended to surprise; they don’t. Still there’s enough here to make Chapin’s untimely death that much more mournful, and to wish he’d had the time to develop an original flavor of his own.