By William Wolf

THE NEW MORALITY  Send This Review to a Friend

The Mint Theater Company’s mounting of Harold Chapin’s 1911 play, “The new Morality,” deftly directly by Jonathan Bank, shows what a sad loss it was when the author, who was born in Brooklyn but grew up in London and earned renown as an actor and British playwright, was killed in battle in 1915 as a soldier in World War I. His career as well as his life was thus tragically cut short.

The Mint’s production demonstrates Chapin’s flair for character creation, witty dialogue and an awareness of the changing role for women in their effort to assert themselves more forcefully in a world dominated by men. Chapin was likely influenced by his mother, who, as reported in program notes by Maya Cantu, spent four months in prison after pouring acid into anti-suffrage ballot boxes.

“The New Morality” is a gentle play that builds to expression of its key viewpoints in the third act. Its trajectory is seductive little by little, with a methodical progression, abetted by a style of avoiding flamboyance and reliance instead on witty discourse.

The setting is a houseboat and applause is due Steven Kemp for the set design. The first act is in the houseboat’s attractive bedroom, and the scene subsequently changes to the houseboat’s deck, very convincingly shown with a spiffy and realistic scenery change. In the background is a view of the river and opposite bank. With Christian DeAngelis’s lighting, the overall effect is lovely, and Carisa Kelly’s costumes add to the period grace.

They key character is Betty Jones, played with determination and humor by the delightful Brenda Meaney. Betty has caused a minor scandal by publicly insulting a woman neighbor, whom we never meet. However, we do meet her husband, E. Wallace Wister, who is saddled with the unpleasant task of being a messenger to carry his wife’s demand that Betty apologize.

This demand is presented to Betty’s stiff-upper-lip husband, Col. Ivor Jones, played with appropriate propriety by Michael Frederic. Betty has at first concealed herself in her bedroom and firmly lets it be known that she has no intention of issuing an apology. We also meet Betty’s friend, Alice, portrayed with restraint by Clemmie Evans, and Betty’s lawyer brother, Geoffrey Belasis, King’s Counsel, played with pleasant authority by Christian Campbell. The houseboat staff members are properly acted by Douglas Rees as Wooten, the man-servant, and Kelly McCready as Lesceline, the maid.

The central joke involves two men having to be intermediaries for their wives. Betty ultimately makes an entrance at an on-deck dinner, with all assembled, and the apology issue comes to a head. Wister has had too much to drink and continues to imbibe further, and in that role Noyes seizes the opportunity to steal the show with a colorful speech that the playwright has handed him in which the “new morality” is made clear—that times are changing and women are coming more and more into their own.

Meaney as Betty completes that picture with her firm command ot the situation, and she is to be applauded for a wonderfully calibrated performance from start to finish. “The New Morality,” far from a strident work, grows on you as it stylishly moves along. What a pity that the playwright’s career was cut down at 29, one of the millions of lives wasted in World War I. At the Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street. Phone: 212-325-9434. Reviewed September 22, 2915.


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