The New York Times

Review: ‘Yours Unfaithfully,’ on an Open Marriage and Its Pitfalls

Jan. 26, 2017

Anne has the perfect cure for her husband’s writer’s block. Not a change of scene, not a change of topic, but a sexual adventure. “Go and get into mischief,” she tells him. “Any sort of mischief! I shouldn’t mind what you do, as long as you get happy again, and start working.”

“Yours Unfaithfully,” Miles Malleson’s 1933 play, now receiving its world premiere at the Mint Theater, is a refined, rueful and often shrewd comedy about polyamory, written decades before open relationships were quite so openly discussed. In some ways, it’s surprising that it went unproduced for so long. Its subject is no more scandalous than those of several plays by George Bernard Shaw or Harley Granville Barker, another Mint favorite. But the shock of its content, the gentility of its form and its strong links to Mr. Malleson’s own life must have made it a chancy undertaking.

Stephen (Max von Essen, a recent Tony nominee for “An American in Paris”) is a writer perhaps too interested in questions of virtue and vice, and Anne (Elisabeth Gray), is his elegant, broad-minded wife, with whom he runs a progressive school. They have been married eight years and have two children. (The almost total absence of these children, even in conversation, is one of the play’s peculiarities.)

When Anne sees Stephen mired in marital and intellectual doldrums, she encourages him to have an affair with their beautiful friend Diana (Mikaela Izquierdo). Stephen is persuaded, Diana is willing, and everything’s just dandy until it isn’t.

“Yours Unfaithfully” is both a daring play and a highly conventional one. Under the polished direction of Jonathan Bank, and in the hands of a fine team of designers, its arguments remain provocative, while its structure feels familiar, its tone decorous. Maybe that only makes it more unusual. It’s a bit like a sex farce with real sorrow instead of slammed doors, and something like a drawing room comedy with moral conundrums peeking out beneath the cushions. It is often very funny; it is also very nearly a tragedy.

Ultimately, the play’s insistence on the sanctity of open marriage, a stance that apparently reflected Mr. Malleson’s own beliefs and practices, isn’t all that persuasive. If the central claim, that to “live effectively” you must walk the line between “a great slope of complacence on one side” and “rather a mess-up of promiscuity” on the other, sounds reasonably plausible in the moment, that is a credit to the dapper Mr. von Essen. Does the road to moral enlightenment and matrimonial contentment absolutely lead into the beds of selected others? Is there really no other way? Separate vacations, maybe?

But what is extraordinary about Mr. Malleson is his ability to create characters who are capable of feeling several things at once, or who don’t really know what they’re feeling at all. Both Stephen and Anne seem genuinely surprised that their hearts and minds aren’t as orderly as they had believed. (Ms. Gray is especially adroit at rendering these intricate emotional shadings.)

In one scene, Alan (a first-rate Todd Cerveris), a friend of the couple’s, tells Stephen to bring Anne to dinner, so that they can all say exactly what they think. “What we feel,” Stephen corrects him.

“What we think we feel!” Alan replies. “That’s as near as most of us get.” Certainly, “Yours Unfaithfully” gets closer than most stage comedies. When a playwright can manage that, you might as well say “I do” to seeing it.