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BWW Review: The Mint Revives Harold Chapin's Witty and Progressive THE NEW MORALITY


Born in Brooklyn, but raised in England by his divorced mother who was an actress, playwright and activist for women's rights, the four full-length plays by turn of the 20th Century scribe Harold Chapin are noted for their fiercely independent female characters.

Brenda Meaney and Clemmie Evans (Photo: Richard Termine)

Alas, the poor chap was gunned down in 1915 at age 29 while serving in the British army during World War I. With two plays produced on Broadway during his lifetime, the last two were mounted posthumously.

His comedy of manners, THE NEW MORALITY, receiving a splendid and gracefully directed production by Jonathan Banks at The Mint Theater, is fully of subtle wit and progressive rumblings to go with its remarkably simple, yet for its time quite intriguing, plot.

The summer of 1911 has been noted as the hottest in London's history, with temperatures rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit regularly. Chapin sets his action aboard two houseboats on the Thames, where well-to-do Londoners attempt to escape the swelter. Set designer Steven Kemp does a marvelous job creating two shipboard interiors and an outdoor deck to match Carisa Kelly's charming Edwardian costumes.

The event that sets the story in motion occurred shortly before the play begins. Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney) has been spending the season holding her tongue while her husband, Colonel Ivor Jones (Michael Frederic) has been paying a bit too much attention to their neighbor, Muriel Wister, who doesn't seem to mind at all.

Christian Campbell, Brenda Meaney, Ned Noyes, Clemmie Evans
and Michael Frederic (Photo: Richard Termine)

Apparently, Betty had enough and lashed out at Muriel - loudly, so that the whole floating community could hear it - using the kind of language not considered befitting of a lady. When her visiting friend Alice (Clemmie Evans) confesses that she heard every word and the shocked Betty asks, "You heard me call her a -?," audience members can very well fill in the blank.

Word of the scandalous scene has spread and Muriel's husband, E. Wallace Wister (Ned Noyes), threatens legal action unless his wife receives an apology. It's not going to happen.

While the premise may not seem enough to fill out an evening, Chapin writes with extreme economy. The first act takes up hardly a half-hour and the next two are barely longer.

Act three is considerable livened up by Mr. Wister's inebriated speech about how women like Betty are changing the meaning of morality into something less concrete. ("You never talk about a modern woman's physique, do you? No; you talk about her charm. Abstract!! Abstract!! You don't mind whether she is beautiful or not-is she smart? Abstract again!!") Noyes does a terrific comic turn with the lengthy speech; a standout moment in an evening full of engaging performances.

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From This Author Michael Dale