Thursday, February 23, 2017

Theater Review: ‘Yours Unfaithfully,’ Presented by the Mint Theater Co.

The New York Off-Broadway troupe The Mint Theater Co. has specialized in bringing to modern audiences plays and playwrights that, for one reason or another, have utterly fallen off the radar. But few of its productions have presented the kind of challenges posed by Yours Unfaithfully.

The play, which closed this past weekend at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, has elements of a sophisticated comedy by Noel Coward, but it hurts too much. And then there is the matter of its argument for open marriage—material almost as loaded, in our sexually tolerant century, as it was when Miles Malleson wrote it in 1933.

Best known as a comic actor and screenwriter in the early days of the British film industry, Malleson was all too intimately familiar with situations such as this. His daughter attended a school operated by Dora and Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician and philosopher who would become notorious as a sexual libertarian. Moreover, Malleson himself had participated in unusual sexual arrangements with his first wife, Lady Constance Annesley, as well as birth control advocate Joan Billson and journalist Beth Tomalin.

The couple at the center of this play, Stephen and Anne Meredith (Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray), are as enlightened and fluent with words as their real-life inspirations: She teaches at a well-regarded school of progressive ideals, while he is now experiencing excruciating writer’s block. Worried by Stephen’s near-constant peevishness, Anne suggests that he go away and get into “mischief.”  And she has just the person in mind: her attractive friend Diana Streatfield (Mikaela Izquierdo), still mourning the loss of her fiancĂ©e.

No sooner does Anne make the suggestion than Stephen acts on it. Even when she discovers him stroking Diana’s hair, Anne kisses her friend and says how glad she is to have her visiting. To all outward appearances, Anne is unfazed.

But appearances can be deceiving. In the next act, with two months having elapsed, Anne pours out the jealousy she never thought she’d experience—first to family friend (and former lover) Alan Kirby (Todd Cerveris), then to Stephen himself.

By the play’s midpoint, Anne is in the position of the narrator of Carly Simon’s song “No Secrets”: “You always answer my questions,/But they don’t always answer my prayers.” By the third act, Stephen—no longer as eager to continue the affair—hurries back from a planned weekend on the continent, but Anne, in a fit of tristesse and getting her own back, now plans her own fling.

If Malleson intended to write a justification for disregarding lifelong monogamy, he failed, perhaps because he was too honest not to acknowledge that there was a large amount of self-interest at the heart of Stephen’s all-too-eager acceptance of his wife’s ill-considered suggestion. The playwright may have intended to depict Stephen’s father, a minister, as overly puritanical (as, indeed, Malleson thought his own uncle, a vicar, clearly was). But many a viewer will likely come away thinking that Canon Meredith, for all his narrow-mindedness, has the better of the argument while watching the emotional upheaval in which Anne and Stephen have plunged.

The problem with Yours Unfaithfully, then, is not that it is dated but that it works at cross-purposes, with its brief for rejecting Puritanism undermined by Malleson’s candid depiction of the emotional instability unleashed by demolished sexual mores.

Producing artistic director Jonathan Bank did not direct with the same sure hand that he did with other recent productions such as John Van Druten’s London Wall. (Of the three principals, only Gray manages a completely convincing English accent—and she and Cerveris are the cast members who most fully inhabit their characters.) But in this comedy shot through with pain, he has delivered to the world a play that feels anything but musty.

Quote of the Day (Loren Eiseley, on Insomniacs)

“I have said that it is the sufferer from insomnia who knits the torn edges of men's dreams together in the hour before dawn. It is he who from his hidden, winter vantage point sees the desperate high-hearted bird fly through the doorway of the grand hotel while the sleepy doorman nods, a deed equivalent in human terms to that of some starving wretch evading Peter at heaven's gate, and an act, I think, very likely to be forgiven.” — Naturalist Loren Eiseley (1907–1977), “One Night’s Dying,” in Night Country (1971)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Photo of the Day: William Washington Gordon Monument, Savannah, GA

By now, Faithful Reader, you have figured out that I am utterly enthralled by the city Savannah. Just about every one of its squares is filled with beauty, history and mystery. One excellent example downtown is Wright Square, which contains the unusual monument in the attached photo that I took over a year and a half ago, when I made a short dash into the city

Does the name William Washington Gordon ring a bell? If you think you vaguely recall it, I’ll give you a stronger hint; the phrase “Girl Scouts.”

Yes, Gordon was the grandfather of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts in America. But he meant a great deal more to Georgia in the antebellum period: its first West Point graduate, a prominent lawyer, state legislator, mayor of Savannah, and president of the Central Railroad and Banking Company, the state’s first railroad.

That last position consumed so much energy in the last six years of his life that he died exhausted in 1842, at only age 46. The Central Railroad had a monument erected in his honor 40 years later. That cenotaph, designed by the Boston firm Van Brunt and Howe, contains four red granite columns with Corinthian capitals supporting four winged figures that hold a globe. The four figures—agriculture, manufacturing, commerce and art—symbolize the fruits of the kind of prosperity hoped for in the railroad.

But placing this tribute in Wright Square meant displacing someone perhaps more essential to the very foundation and survival of Savannah. Chief Tomo-Chi-Chi had been a crucial ally of James Oglethorpe when the Englishman founded the colony in 1733, helping to establish a military outpost against Spanish invasion and assuring peace with the other tribes in the area.  He had been buried in the center of Wright Square with a pyramid of rocks formed over his grave.

Gordon’s daughter-in-law, Nellie Kinzie Gordon, an admirer of the chief, was annoyed when the railroad placed the cenotaph directly over the Native American’s grave. She pushed to erect a large piece of Georgia granite in Wright Square, explaining Tomo-Chi-Chi’s significance. It was the first act of public service by the organization she founded, the Georgia Society of the Colonial Dames of America.

Quote of the Day (Maxwell Anderson, on George Washington)

“There are some men who lift the age they inhabit, till all men walk on higher ground in that lifetime.” —American playwright Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) on George Washington, in Valley Forge (1937)

Happy birthday to George Washington, born on this day in 1732. He was indisputably, as biographer James Thomas Flexner called him, the “indispensable man” in creating the United States.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Quote of the Day (Noel Coward, on Hopes for One’s Country)

“Let’s drink to the hope that one day this country of ours, which we love so much, will find dignity and peace again.”—British playwright, actor, and composer Sir Noel Coward (1899-1973), Cavalcade (1931)