The New Morality

Harold Chapin
Mint Theater
The Mint Theater, New York

Brenda Meaney, Ned Noyes, Christian Campbell and Michael Frederic Credit: Richard Termine
Christian Campbell, Brenda Meaney, Ned Noyes, Clemmie Evans and Michael Frederic Credit: Richard Termine
Brenda Meaney and Clemmie Evans Credit: Richard Termine

The theatregoing community should pay due homage to the Mint Theater’s Artistic Director Jonathan Bank for resurrecting this piece by Harold Chapin, a sadly neglected British playwright who, at only 29, became a victim of The Great War.

Directed by Bank himself and first seen in September 2015, the 90-minute piece is set in 1911, a period artistically conveyed by the scenic and costume designers. Steven C Kemp has created a pair of delightful sets and backdrops based around a houseboat on “a fashionable reach of the Thames”, while Carisa Kelly’s costumes speak volumes.

Before the opening curtain even comes up Brenda Meaney, giving a lovely performance in a star vehicle role as thoroughly modern, outspoken leading lady Betty Jones, has been involved in a one-sided, riverside argument with a timorous (ex-)friend, Muriel Wister, much to the shock and amusement of passers-by.

The firebrand contrasts with her noble friend Alice, played by Clemmie Evans, at the same time demonstrating the kind of feminist attitudes that were not to come into vogue for another half-century.

Indeed, she leads Michael Frederic in the role of her exasperated but socially inept husband Ivor, a recently retired army colonel no less, a merry dance, fondly referring to him as “the brute”.

His embarrassed conversation with Ned Noyes’s equally henpecked next-boat neighbour, Teddy Wister, is a delight, leading to threats of consultations with a member of the legal profession.

Pleasingly, an extremely funny scene is not harmed by acting that is deliberately a little mannered, hardly inappropriate in a comedy of manners.

What starts out as an angry tirade turns into an unlikely prospective court case, as wronged Muriel and weak Teddy feel obliged to seek redress, even in the knowledge that Betty’s brother Geoffrey played by Christian Campbell is a King’s Counsel, i.e. a high-ranking barrister or advocate.

As a bonus amidst the to-ing and fro-ing of conversations about libel and the prospect of a spell in prison for the lady of the boat, the lawyer presents a brief but cogent homily about moral philosophy and humanity’s struggle for progress.

Unexpectedly, a drunken response about women’s dignity in the face of men’s weakness contains deep truths and adds immensely to the effect, drawing spontaneous applause from the live audience for Ned Noyes.

The New Morality is a splendid rediscovery with echoes of Wilde and Ibsen. It offers a vision of the past that inevitably shines a light on the present and richly deserves this new airing.

Rather than being unremittingly serious in presenting important truths, it also contains great humour and a memorable central character triumphantly brought to the stage by Brenda Meaney.

A password is required in order to watch plays in this season and Mint Theater has kindly provided BTG readers with “LostPlays2020”, which will allow access.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher