The Rat Trap
By Marc Miller
First, a bit of history.
Its 1918, and young Noel Coward is
performing in other peoples plays while trying to write his own.
Under these busy circumstances he concocts The Rat Trap, which, it is
speculated, he conceives to star himself and his great friend, the celebrated
young actress Maggie Albanesi. Albanesi passes away a few years later, at 24,
probably of a botched abortion, and a grieving Coward delays The Rat Traps premiere until 1926, with other actors, outside the
West End. Amid several concurrently running Coward hits, critics and audiences
dismiss it, and its not heard from again until many
decades later. Its had the occasional British
production since 2006, but at the Mint Theatre Co., dedicated to interesting
old plays youve never heard of, The Rat Trap is now
having its American premiere.
Dont expect Private Lives or Present Laughter or Hay Fever.
This product of the teenage Cowards imagination, while blessed with his
gift for language and samplings of his famous wit, is no boulevard comedy. Its a problem play, an issues-laden
comedy-drama closer in spirit to George Bernard Shaw, whom Coward must have
been consciously trying to emulate. Neat it isnt:
The Rat Trap toggles between sad and funny with little discipline, overplays
its characters conflicts, and has one of the most
abrupt endings youll ever see. But its the work of an 18-year-old whose skills are, to put it
very mildly, precocious.
Sarin Monae West and James Evans. Photo by Todd Cerveris
Were in Kensington, at the end of a merry dinner, where
Olive (Elisabeth Gray) is celebrating the impending marriage of her good pal
Sheila (Sarin Monae West) to Keld (James Evans). Olive and Sheila have been
living together, nursing a friendship that, at least as directed by Alexander
Lass, looks like it might have been something more than that. Keld and Sheila
are both writershe an aspiring playwright, she a successful author of short
stories and novelsand, its not hard to gather, shes the more talented of the two. With Olives unmarried, living-in-sin downstairs neighbors Naomi
(Heloise Lowenthal) and Edmund (Ramzi Khalaf) quipping on the sidelines, Keld
and Sheila pursue a rocky union, alternately cooing and screaming at each
other, including a really knock-down-drag-out Act II (out of four acts) finale.
Meanwhile, Keld, though hes no literary genius, becomes the far
more successful of the pair, while Sheila agrees to terminate her career for
the sake of domestic tranquility. All while Keld is getting flirty with Ruby
(Claire Saunders), the soubrette in one of his plays, and Burrage (a
scene-stealing Cynthia Mace), the couples Cowardesque maid (she functions
roughly as Edith does in Blithe Spirit), is interrupting them at awkward
Cynthia Mace and Sarin Monae West. Photo by Todd Cerveris
Young Noel doesnt lack for ripostes: Marriage nowadays is nothing but a
temporary refuge for those who are uncomfortable at home. Publishers never touch
alcohol in any form; it might go to their heads and make them accept things. But
hes harder at work exploring societal
quandaries. How far must a wife defer to a husband, and why is she the one
subjugation is expected of? What is the proper wifely response to an
infidelity? Are some literary careers more honorable than others? He doesnt necessarily answer these questions, but in 1918 it was
daring just to bring them upnot to mention illegitimacy, unwanted pregnancies,
gold-digging hussies, and other then-scandalous topics that pop up. Its an unfiltered talent; Coward is verbose, and his
intended epigrams dont always land with their customary
ease. But its unmistakably there.
Lowenthal, Claire Saunders, and Ramzi Khalaf. Photo by Todd Cerveris
It's not the
smoothest Mint production, either. The acting varies: Evanss Keld doesnt have the assurance of Wests Sheila, and Lowenthal and Khalaf dont make huge impressions in what admittedly are almost
extraneous characters. Gray and Saunders seem at home as Olive and Ruby. Vicki
R. Daviss set is unusually utilitarian by Mint
standards, and Hunter Kaczorowskis costumes are a mixed bagwould even
a showboat like Ruby show up in flaming red? Lasss
direction has some savory moments: Get a load of Grays timing on, Ive nothing against him at all, really
[long pause] But somehow
. But he cant do much about the novice playwrights abrupt changes of mood and tone, or the completely
up-in-the-air way the Master chooses to leave us.
But which would
you rather have, yet another competent production of a Coward chestnut youve seen many times before, or a fresh look at the
youthful genius trying his hand at serious playwrighting, and revealing an
aptitude and sophistication far beyond the range of any other 18-year-old youve ever met? Sheila, defending her husbands output to Olive, says, He has a wonderful sense of the
dramatic, which of course is most important, and his dialogue is exceedingly
witty. He may fail a little in construction, but that won't matter a bit if he
shows real sincerity. And thats a pretty good summing up of Coward
at 18. The Rat Trap has some rough edges, but clearly this young man is headed
for great things. The dude could write.
at New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St.
nycitycenter.org, or 212 581-1212
time: 2 hours 15 minutes