The New Morality
In theatrical comedy, drama, and even tragedy, an entire play can revolve around or turn upon the smallest of plot points. The situation in The New Morality, an early 20th century comedy by Harold Chapin is this: a wife loudly and publicly tells off her neighbor for being too accepting of attentions from her husband, and then the husband of the woman who has been dressed down comes to seek an apology on behalf of his spouse.
This precis may make the play sound very slight, especially when you hear that we don’t even get to see the row that sets the plot (such as it is) in motion. The action (such as it is) begins immediately thereafter, when Betty Jones – the lady who did all the shouting – is visited in her bedroom by Alice Meynall, a friend who overheard the row. For that matter, although Mr. E. Wallace Wister, husband of the confronted neighbor lady, is very much a character in the play, his wife never appears.
The setting for the three extremely short acts of The New Morality is the houseboat on which Betty lives with her husband, Col. Ivor Jones, somewhere on the Thames, circa 1911. And of course, as you might imagine, the specific plot circumstances are not the main point of the piece. In confronting Muriel Wister, Betty has violated a major rule of proper decorum among upper-class Brits of the era. Chapin uses the offstage set-to and its aftermath to make both comedic and serious points about societal mores, emotional fidelity in a marriage, and how much – if at all – a person is responsible for his or her spouse’s words and actions.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing any production of the Mint Theater Company will not be surprised to hear that artistic director Jonathan Bank and his colleagues have done very, very right by The New Morality. The extraordinarily beautiful actress Brenda Meaney hits not one false note in her portrayal of Betty, who at first comes across as rather self-righteous but is eventually revealed as a very smart, strong woman indeed. Michael Frederic is spot on as Col. Jones, who would really love to smooth things over with the neighbors. Clemmie Evans is the ideal quirky-comic friend as Alice, and Christian Campbell is a welcome, charming presence as Betty’s brother, who happens to be a lawyer.
The play’s comic highlight is a long, tipsy monologue delivered by E. Wallace Wister; Ned Noyes seizes the opportunity and plays it for all its worth. Rounding out the cast are Douglas Rees as Wooten, the British man-servant of one’s dreams, and Kelly McCready as the maid, Lesceline. The British accents of the entire cast are exemplary – not surprising, as great attention to dialect work is another hallmark of Mint shows.
Jonathan Bank’s direction is well-nigh pitch perfect, though I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about that at first. Through much of Act I, it seemed to me that perhaps the production could have used some more comic edge; but, as the action progressed, it became clear that The New Morality is not that kind of comedy. Even in its lightest passages, the dialogue is clever and witty rather than laugh-out-loud funny, which only eases the transition to more serious moments. Bank and the actors navigate all of this with aplomb.
That said, if the production is flawed in any respect, it’s a miscalculation on the part of lighting designer Christian DeAngelis. The first act/scene of the play is set in Betty’s bedroom aboard the houseboat, around 4:30 in the afternoon, so very bright lighting would not be appropriate; but DeAngelis has gone a little too far in the other direction, providing illumination relatively so dim, and tilted so far towards the yellow end of the color spectrum, that I believe it served to dampen some of the humor in the text at the performance I attended. I found myself the only laughing at various witty lines, and I had the impression this was because the lighting isn’t entirely conducive to comedy.
Still, it’s a minor point in the scheme of things. The other production elements – Steven Kemp’s sets, Carisa Kelly’s costumes, Joshua Yocom’s props, etc. – equal or surpass the Mint’s extraordinarily high standard. And the lighting for the other two acts/scenes is just fine.
Harold Chapin was born in Brooklyn in 1886, but lived in England from age two onward. He wrote 10 one-act plays and four full-length works before he was killed at 29 in an act of heroism during World War I. The Mint’s eminently satisfying production of The New Morality may spur renewed interest in Chapin’s output and cause us to wonder what else he might have achieved had his life not been cut short before his 30 birthday.