Thursday, February 23, 2017

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

The New York Off-Broadway troupe The Mint Theater Co. specializes 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 (1888-1969) 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 fiancée.

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, 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.

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