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Saturday
Jun232018

‘CONFLICT’ - A 1925 PLAY ABOUT BRITISH UPPER-CLASS POLITICS AND SEX

Graeme Malcolm, Jeremy Beck, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.

HENRY EDWARDS - NEW YORK - May 25, 2018

“Worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or neglected.”

That’s exactly what you’ll get when you visit the Mint Theater Company at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre.

Last year, the Mint brought us British actor and playwright Miles Malleson’s 1933 "un-romantic” comedy, “Yours Unfaithfully.”  The play had been so neglected it had never been seen anywhere until then.

The Mint’s current endeavor, “Conflict,” a 1925 “love story” by Malleson, is having its New York debut.

Before the Mint’s intervention, the only thing I knew about Malleson was the vague sense that I had heard his name. I’ve since learned he was born in Surrey, England, in 1888, attended Cambridge University, made his acting debut in 1911, and scripted his first play two years later.

Not a single one of those efforts has been performed in New York until now, probably explaining why neither you nor I have heard of Malleson with the single exception of hardcore devotees of British character acting.

Malleson’s receding chin, sharp nose, gentle and absent-minded manner and soft and high voice made him the ideal choice to portray bumbling or pompous fools. Over the course of a very long career, he delivered delightfully eccentric performances in (believe it or not) 100 movies.

Fans of British gothic horror undoubtedly spotted him as hypochondriac and fee-hungry Transylvanian M.D, Dr. Tobler, in “The Brides of Dracula” at the (fabulously renovated) Quad Cinema’s current 32-film series, “Hammer’s House of Horror, Part I: The Classic Years (1956–1967).”

Malleson was a Socialist and radical thinker whose liberal values permeated his plays and were audacious for their day. But the British stage of the mid-1920s was no place to address serious social issues. The poverty that afflicted the two-million who were unemployed stood in stark contrast to the affluence of the middle and upper classes. Audiences in evening dress flocked to London’s gilded palaces to take in live "entertainment"(the musical “Chu-Chin-Chow,” JM Barrie’s fantasy for adults “Dear Brutus”), and were in no mood for Socialist hectoring.

In order to make his progressive politics and views about sex palatable, Malleson, of necessity, chose a conventional approach.  More than 90 years later, yesteryear’s edginess is admirable, but not especially compelling.

For example, “Yours Unfaithfully” is a rueful, conventional and ultimately tedious comedy about the daring subject of open marriage.

The play was inspired by the relationship shared by the dramatist and his first of three wives, writer and aspiring actress Lady Constance Malleson. Both were in passionate agreement that infidelity is perfectly permissible in a solid relationship, and they did not keep their arrangement a secret.

“In the way that some people keep open house, the Mallesons kept open bed,” Aldous Huxley said of the couple.

The duo appears to be far more interesting than the play they inspired.

In common with “Yours Unfaithfully,” the Mint has given “Conflict” a tasty and tasteful physical production. Virtually the entire play takes place in the imposing drawing room of the Victorian era, wood-paneled London townhouse belonging to rich and conservative Lord Bellingdon (classic old-school Graeme Malcolm). Portraits of dogs were quite the thing then and set designer John McDermott goes so far as to mount a captivating portrait of a dog behind the paneled doors leading to the drawing room. The canvas captures your attention whenever a servant turns up with a tea set.

Before Bellingdon’s surprisingly shut eyes, Major Sir Ronald Clive (gentlemanly Henry Clarke) has been having a two-year secret affair with Bellingdon’s daughter, Lady Dare Bellingdon (a spirited Jasmin Walter).

Clive is a Conservative candidate for a seat in the House of Commons and the last thing he wants is to wind up in a sex scandal if the affair becomes public knowledge.  Nor does he want to betray mentor Bellingdon who believes unmarried women should be chaste and who happens to be not all that bad for a Conservative.

Clive wants to marry Dare, but the idea does not appeal to her.  Women are three years away from obtaining the right to vote, and upper-class, sheltered, beautiful (and somewhat of a ninny) Dare views herself as an independent woman.  Breaking the rules and sleeping with Clive is one thing; marriage to him does not seem all that interesting (and who can blame her?).

Clive has been followed by a strange man who breaks into the house in search of food and is captured. The burglar turns out to be Tom Smith (Jeremy Beck), a respected classmate of Clive’s at Cambridge. He’s landed on the skids thanks to one misfortune after another after another.

Beck, intense to begin with, is spellbinding as he catalogs his step-by-step descent into the lowest of the lower depths.

Clive and Bellingdon send the woebegone almost thief on his way with food, whiskey and cash. In response to their pity and the sight of seeing one of their own in such a state of disrepair (if it happened to him, who could be next?), their pride disallows them from admitting how much  money they've turned over.

It turns out to be a lot.

Eighteen months later, they discover Smith has utilized their charity to clean up his act and become the Labour candidate who opposes Clive in the forthcoming national election.

To further complicate matters, it turns out liberalism can be really hot and Dare and Tom are eying each other lustfully.

Jessie Shelton, Jeremy Beck Photo: Todd Cerveris.

Tossing taboos aside, Dare attends a Socialist meeting and visits Tom’s bed-setting room.  They never make it to bed even though they are so inclined. What does happen is that he gives Dare an earful about social justice, wealth distribution, proper housing and a host of other social issues.

Her instant enlightenment goes a long way toward moving her politics leftward. Her father reinforces her new found awareness when he points out that Smith’s politics has the potential to destroy their privileged way of life.

“Conflict” is remarkably civil, and some of its arguments demonstrate that 90-odd years later, nothing has changed or in some cases it's gotten worse. 

Director Jenn Thompson skillfully orchestrates the well-made play.

“Conflict” is generating an abundance of favorable response. As for me, I found it a pleasing entertainment, and one that has been mounted with great care. But in light of the wretched politics of today, Malleson's play struck me as more of a fairy tale than anything else, especially when it concluded on a note of compromise.

 

Miles Malleson

 

 "Conflict" runs through July 21.  For more information and tickets: MINT THEATER

 

 

 

 

Sunday
Jun172018

‘LOBBY HERO’ - KENNETH LONERGAN’S TANGLED MORALITY PLAY AT THE RENOVATED HAYES THEATRE

Chris Evans and Michael Cera

 

HENRY EDWARDS - New  York - March 26, 2018

To what extent may you lie in an effort to protect someone you care for? Is loyalty more of a virtue than honesty? Could loyalty be just another word for corruption? Is it dishonest to simply keep your mouth shut?

Those are the questions you will be pondering during and after the first Broadway production of the 2001 Off Broadway comedy-drama, “Lobby Hero,” by Kenneth Lonergan, a recipient of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea.”

Spring is barely underway and the weather has been uncharacteristically chilly – anywhere that is except in the heart of the theatre district where everything was bursting into vivid bloom.

As it approaches its fortieth anniversary, Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre has just launched its new Broadway home, the renovated 597-seat Helen Hayes Theatre, with “Lobby Hero” as its debut production.

Designer David Rockwell is responsible for the splendid renovation, somehow amazingly intimate and grand at the same time. In startling contrast to the plush crushed velvet seats in the audience, he has also designed the set for the play, a dreary, impersonal, and nondescript apartment building lobby midtown on the West Side.

Playwright Lonergan has created four characters we all recognize, Bill (Chris Evans, Captain America himself), a savvy, arrogant and morally compromised cop; Jeff (Michael Cera), the building security guard and a sad-sack slacker who can’t stop talking; rookie cop Dawn (Bel Powley), who hero worships her handsome partner; and Jeff’s boss William (Brian Tyree Henry), a stickler who is facing a mess of a moral dilemma.

Lonergan’s marvelous writing and Trip Cullman’s incisive direction transforms them into anything but types. They are fully, painfully human and very funny.

The playwright’s efforts can be categorized as highly realistic and devoted to representing the language as well as the experience of characters thrust to the margins of society by age or social status. His work emphasizes character and situation over plot and the world of Lonergan’s characters is a poignant one. And speak of “Lobby Hero,” even the more corrupt of his characters appear lost rather than malicious, and good intentions certainly do not guarantee favorable results.

William is a by-the-book boss who finds, in Jeff, someone with potential but also someone who bothers him with his incessant joking and only moderate attention to his duties. In a rare moment of candor, William reveals to Jeff that his brother has been arrested for murder, the culmination of a life misspent in the cracks of the city.

Enter two beat cops, Bill and his youthful partner Dawn. Bill is a veteran cop, poised to move off the beat and into the gold shield of a detective. He's got his own way of doing things and isn't afraid to bend a rule here or there. His most valued commodity is a partner who has his back, no matter the moment.

Dawn idolizes Bill, and it could easily be love. There are hints that even now that after only three months on the job, they’ve fooled around with each other.

Jeff is taken with Dawn, who has to wait in the lobby while Bill visits the woman in 22J, a woman who Jeff says "has lots of boyfriends." It's clear that Bill is making sexual hay with the hooker with some regularity.

Dawn, of course, is crushed with the knowledge that her partner, both on the job and hopefully off, would engage in such spurious behavior, either while on duty or off.

Spoiler alert: William confides to Jeff that his brother has created an alibi that has him joining William at a movie at the exact moment the murder has occurred. Despite his profound allegiance to the truth, William confesses he is considering the idea of confirming his brother's alibi.

Bill, ever the big man on the beat, assures William that he will vouch for his honesty and help the security chief establish the alibi that will free his brother.

Many twists and turns ensue as Jeff turns from spineless laggard to a man whose honor becomes something more than just a word; Dawn turns from ingénue cop into a fierce protector of both her honor and the honor of the uniform; William becomes a man who is living with a lie and who finds that there is satisfaction in dishonor; and Bill, who parades like an honorable cock of the walk, proves that his sense of honor is only a mirage and as flimsy as a leaf in a storm.

But nothing has ultimately been resolved. In a gray world where everything is colored gray, Bill has demanded that Dawn satisfy him sexually. Sexually abused by her partner and intimidated by the fact that she’s a lone woman in a macho male world, does do what’s right by violating a confidentiality offered by a friend?

Did Jeff blab William’s secret to Dawn in order really to help her or score points with her?

William is concerned for his brother, but he fires a sleeping security guard who is within two years of retirement.

Dawn asks Jeff, “How do you know if you’re doing right or wrong?”

He replies: “I don’t know. I never tried to do anything before.”

“Lobby Hero,” poignant, melancholic and often quite funny, presents a world in which racism, sexism and economic inequality color and sometimes make the rule.

"I just don't want to be one of those pathetic guys in lobbies who are always telling you about their big plans to do some kind of shit you know goddamn well they're never going to. I'd rather just be in the lobby and just be in the lobby. To tell you the truth, sometimes I feel like I was worn out the minute I was born," says Jeff.

Michael Cera plays Jeff with great comedic timing and earnest restlessness. Making a terrific Broadway debut, Chris Evans is an impressively powerful Bill.  Bel Powley is tough but appealingly vulnerable and Brian Tyree Henry exudes compassion as William.

It’s a terrific production of a wonderful and quirky play.

Welcome to Broadway, Second Stage. You have every reason to be very proud.

 

Michael Cera and Brian Tyree Henry For information about future productions visit:  2ST