The New Morality
Time Out says
The New Morality: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
Like a flute of champagne left out in the sun, the vintage play The New Morality (1911) starts off scintillating but ultimately falls flat. Playwright Harold Chapin (whose life and career were cut short by World War I) tackles a promising premise, one with surprising modern relevance: the perils of emotional infidelity.
At the outset, we find Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney) languishing in the bedroom of her fashionable houseboat on the Thames, fresh from having told off her husband’s presumably platonic paramour, one Muriel Wister. Betty is mildly repentant: “You can’t go calling people dog-show names,” she concedes to her mousy young confidante, Alice (Clemmie Evans). Even so, Betty adamantly refuses to apologize, despite the pressure brought to bear first by her husband, a retired colonel (Michael Frederic, doughty), and then by the spouse (Ned Noyes, playing inbred and ineffective) of the offended party.
It’s immediately apparent that Mr. Wister is not keen on the mission: he all but swallows his prominent teeth in the effort not to offend. And it takes the colonel some time to absorb the nature of his precipitating offense, seeing as Betty, up to this point, has masked her grievance with passive aggression: “Tell a man what you’re giving him hell for?” she schools Alice. “Why, he’d forgive himself in two minutes.”
Act I is peppered with post-Wildean witticisms; it’s only later that the action flags. Alexander Woollcott, reviewing this “piquant and pleasing comedy” when it first played in New York in 1921, complained of an “extremely desultory second act” (apt); the efficacy of Act III unfortunately depends largely on the now-questionable humor embodied by a blathering drunk. Ultimately Wister, in a long, impassioned monologue, appears to be patting Betty—and, by extension, “the modern woman”—on the head for her ability to think in “abstract” terms (in the apparent absence, in this instance, of actual malfeasance). Wister’s addled encomium is not exactly a rallying cry for a gender whose members were, at the time, literally risking death in their attempt to attain the vote.
Even if the play itself has outlived its moment, the actors—including a superfluous solicitor and the requisite servants—are all excellent and very believably cast, as if plucked from an early 20th-century edition of The Tatler; Carisa Kelly’s spot-on costumes help sustain the illusion. Set designer Steven Kemp has done his utmost to overcome the strictures of the tiny Mint space, in the effort to convey an era of everyday elegance long gone by. There are more tiresome places to spend a sultry day on the water.—Sandy MacDonald
Mint Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Harold Chapin. Directed by Jonathan Bank. With Brenda Meaney, Michael Frederic, Clemmie Evans, Ned Noyes. Running time: 2hrs. Two intermissions.