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The New Morality

                                            by Marc Miller

The thing about The New Morality is, the morality’s so old. Remember when heroines used to spend three acts suspecting their husbands of infidelity, and if it were true, it would truly be the end of the world? No, you probably don’t, and to encounter Harold Chapin’s upper-class Brit twits taking on so about the inconstancy of man, the fickleness of woman, and the rules of civility between the sexes is to encounter a social construct that, for anyone not of a certain age, might as well be from another planet. Not that the Mint Theater, which specializes in forgotten 20th century plays by often-forgotten writers, doesn’t present Chapin’s arguments impeccably, or that the assorted spouses, servants, and best friends aboard the Hyacinth, a tidy houseboat on the Thames, aren’t good company. But these characters do spend awful amounts of verbiage explaining themselves. And, loquacious as they are, I found their motives and moral attitudes still somewhat mysterious.

Brenda Meaney and Clemmie Evans in THE NEW MORALITY by Harold Chapin.
Photo: Richard Termine

Consider Betty (Brenda Meaney), stewing in bed at midday, after having railed against Muriel Wister, occupier of the houseboat next door, and calling her, we gather, a bitch. It’s not quite clear whether she actually thinks her husband Ivor (Michael Frederic) has actually done anything with Muriel—Betty keeps denying she does—or is merely mad at him for making himself the subject of gossip by running errands for Muriel. In all events, she’s furious at them both, and she will not apologize to the never-seen Muriel, even if it means a lawsuit. Betty’s social standing is threatened, and her pal Alice (Clemmie Evans, in a delightful Joyce Grenfell of a performance, all politeness and befuddlement), advises her to put the matter behind her as quickly as possible. Muriel’s husband (Ned Noyes) tries to intervene, as does Betty’s barrister brother Belasis (Christian Campbell), and there’s much talk above and below deck of social roles and whether man, in 6,000 years of civilization, has really made any moral progress. (Belasis’s verdict: He has not.)

Christian Campbell, Brenda Meaney, Ned Noyes, Clemmie Evans, and Michael Frederic in the Mint Theater production of Harold Chapin's The New Morality.
Christian Campbell, Brenda Meaney, Ned Noyes, Clemmie Evans, and Michael Frederic in the Mint Theater production of Harold Chapin's The New Morality.
(© Richard Termine)

And it’s lively talk, though we’d benefit from a guide to the moral code circa 1914, and perhaps a glossary. (The Brooklyn-born Chapin died in combat in 1915; The New Morality was produced, successfully, some years later.) The men are given to phrases like “Women are queer cattle, aren’t they?”, while Betty and Alice are similarly cynical about men, though given to silencing the discussion every time the maid enters. The crux of Chapin’s moral argument, if there is one, comes when Wister, after too many whiskies, launches on a several-pages monologue lauding women for refusing to lower themselves to male moral standards. Women, he enthuses, are “actively moral,” as illustrated by Betty’s willingness to drag her dissing of Muriel through the courts if necessary. (Plot point: Long after Wister has assured her he won’t pursue a case, Betty muses on what her life in prison may be like. Why? Is she speaking of another, metaphorical prison? Chapin isn’t telling.) Noyes’ verbal timing and physical slapstick in this Shavian run-on are impeccable; this was the pre-O’Neill theatrical era where drunk scenes were automatically considered hilarious, and he delivers on that. But Chapin’s philosophy remains obscure. He appreciates the feminine mystique, but he also makes Betty inconsistent, contradictory, and downright unreasonable. Meaney captures every turn of logic and wounded vanity in Betty’s fertile mind, but there’s something unattractive about the woman’s self-centeredness and eagerness to emasculate her spouse. She’s like a Sex and the City sister 90 years before her time.

We know we’re in good hands with director Jonathan Bank, an old master at capturing the poise and genteel stage rhythms of a century ago, while Carisa Kelly’s not-overly-lavish costumes and Steven Kemp’s nimble changing sets keep us visually engaged. And with three acts ranging from 25 to 35 minutes, The New Morality doesn’t wear out its welcome. (One suspects text cuts; no play from that era starts at 8 and rings down before 10.) Frederic’s gruff bewilderment and Campbell’s glib way of shaping legal pragmatism both help out, while maid Kelly McCready and butler Douglas Rees are as unobtrusively supportive as Edwardian servants should be. The talk’s smart and swift, the characters compelling enough, the non-potty-mouthed post-Victorian decorum a welcome antidote to virtually everything else playing within a 10-block radius. But try and boil Chapin’s philosophy down to sound-bite length, and you’ll be frustrated. He waxes eloquent on the battles of the sexes, but really, his point remains elusive.

The New Morality plays through Oct. 18 at the Mint Theater, 311 W. 43rd St. Buy tickets through, or call 866-811-4111.