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Jeremy Beck, Jessie Shelton and Henry Clarke
                                                                                      Photos by Todd Cerveris


                        By Marc Miller


If you know the name Miles Malleson at all, it’s probably from the sublime 1952 film of The Importance of Being Earnest. There, in the fast company of such lights as Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, and Margaret Rutherford, Malleson’s Reverend Chasuble is a befuddled delight, putting an expert spin on lines like, “Am I to understand there are to be no christenings today?” The performance is enough to assure Malleson a permanent place in the Character Actor Hall of Fame. But did you know he was also a noted British playwright, and a progressive intellectual at that? The Mint Theater first acquainted contemporary audiences with his work last season, with a beguiling staging of Yours Unfaithfully, his “unromantic comedy” from 1933. Now the Mint is presenting his 1925 Conflict, billed simply as a “love story,” though it turns out to be about rather more than that. And once again this invaluable theater company has exhumed a bracing little comedy-drama with a lot on its mind.


Graeme Malcolm, Jeremy Beck and Henry Clarke
Photo by Todd Cerveris


John McDermott’s absolutely splendid set, all mahogany and plush velvet, instantly informs us we’re among the gentry, specifically in one of the 30 rooms on the estate of Lord Bellingdon (Graeme Malcolm, exuding C. Aubrey Smith down to his well-trimmed fingernails). He and his best buddy, the much younger Sir Ronald (Henry Clarke), are enjoying a late-night libation when there’s a rustling outside, one that disturbs and frightens the Lady Dare (Jessie Shelton), Belingdon’s daughter and Ronald’s intended, who had retired upstairs. It’s a protected, well-policed estate, but there’s an intruder, Tom Smith (Jeremy Beck), a down-and-out former Oxford classmate of Ronald’s.


We know he’s down and out because he says, “You can see I’m down and out.” Some of Malleson’s dialogue goes like that, and this opening scene presses on rather longer than it has to, delving into character traits of characters who, frankly, we’ve seen before. (Yet one suspects this is less than a complete Conflict; it clocks in at a little over two hours, short for a mid-1920s British play.) Bellingdon is polite, cultured, and accustomed to having his way. His daughter is the New Woman Circa 1926, declaring her independence from the bourgeoisie even as she clings to its material comforts. Sir Ronald is a Tory, reasonably well-meaning and willing to listen to other viewpoints, but smug and hypocritical. And Tom—well, there’s more to him than we first know.


A former child of privilege, he saw his father’s business destroyed by unfair competition, after which he devolved into an itinerant, often homeless existence. He’s there essentially to beg, and Bellingdon and Ronald, being stuffy and materialistic but not heartless, indulge him with 120 pounds. Pouf, it’s a year later, and Smith, now a Labor candidate, suddenly is running for Parliament against Ronald. And this is where not only the fun but also the philosophizing begins.


Malleson, you see, while comfortably middle-class, was raised in liberal surroundings and paid more attention to the underclass than many of his playwriting contemporaries, who spent most of their time in drawing rooms. Thus the stage is set for lively debate, with Tom spouting socialism, Ronald advocating the status quo, Bellingdon backing Ronald up, and Dare evolving out of spoiled-heiress status. Malleson makes the most of his many chances to cite the inequities in then-current British society, and to point up how social attitudes always give the one percenters the benefit of the doubt and treat the less fortunate less beneficently. Really, if Dare lifts a five-pound note off her father’s dresser, how is that somehow more benign than Tom holding onto some change he was mistakenly given? Malleson keeps citing statistics on how much the wealthy have and how little everyone else has; these, and speculation on the likelihood of another world war, feel pretty prescient. And Mrs. Robinson (Amelia White), Tom’s working-class landlady, is an eloquent voice for the helpless masses. Will she vote for him? he asks. She will not, she replies, and “’Tisn’t as if it mattered.” A more deferential have-not is Daniells (James Prendergast), the Bellingdons’ butler, who’s given to countless repetitions of “Yes, m’Lord, thank you.” 


We’re not quite sure where Malleson stands on Tory vs. Labor, he’s critical of both, and we don’t find out who makes it into Parliament. But he’s plainly for shaking things up, and he builds up the Tom-Dare romance in a skillful way that makes us root for her to escape her elitist upbringing. Further, he suggests that premarital sex is maybe not such a bad thing (he and his wife famously had an open marriage), and his frequent descriptions of the suffering of the unemployed, underfed, uncared-for underclass must have been news to a substantial part of the West End audience. They must have included many people like Mrs. Tremayne (Jasmin Walker), Dare’s well-to-do friend. She doesn’t despise the poor; they’re just not on her map.


In an impressive cast, Shelton’s impulsive, uncertain Lady Dare stands out, a clever young woman who thinks and questions more than is convenient among her male-dominated set. Clarke underplays Sir Ronald, and Beck’s so understated as Tom he’s sometimes inaudible, but they look the parts, especially in Martha Hally’s elegant costumes. Director Jenn Thompson gives them all some fetching physical business to point up their social standing, and the two hours-plus fly by. It’s getting almost monotonous to say so, but with Conflict, the Mint has another valuable find on its hands. We look forward to its next, a Lillian Hellman drama that ran for a week in 1936, all the more.


Off-Broadway Play

Playing at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., through July 21; 212-239-6200