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Review - What The Public Wants: Turn Off The Dark

Though I try to avoid pronouncing century-old plays as being as relevant today they were a hundred years ago, a little tweaking here and there - perhaps the mentioning of a critically acclaimed musical that fails at the box office while another that suffers from horrible pre-opening word of mouth nevertheless enjoys a healthy advance sale - would make Arnold Bennett's 1909 media satire, What The Public Wants, feel as though it were written last night.

As anyone familiar with New York's roster of non-profit theatre companies might guess, the long-forgotten play by a once popular West End playwright has been unearthed by the Mint Theater Company; specialists in discovering worthy gems from the past and mounting them in frequently outstanding productions that replicate the styles of their original times. Director Matthew Arbour and his excellent ensemble present a fully satisfying look at a clever theatre piece that may not be especially revelatory to 21st Century audiences, but does offer a humorous example of how little has changed.

The central character is millionaire publisher Sir Charles Worgan, owner of over 40 publications, from newspapers to religious periodicals to ladies' magazines, all of which he insists to be written with "snap." (i.e.: an article with the eye-catching headline, "Are We Growing Less Spiritual?," concludes with the reassuring answer, "No.") The influence of his publications can close a West End play or, perhaps, start a war with Germany. But while a bit of a self-satisfied bully, Charles suffers from insecurity when dealing with, as he calls them, "intellectual, superior people." He's a successful businessman because his only concern is the bottom line, without much regard for artistry or, to a certain degree, truth. Rob Breckenridge gives an excellent portrayal of the character's conflicting emotions, carrying himself with impeccably groomed confidence that realistically, and sympathetically, cracks at unguarded moments.

His world-traveling brother, Francis (a charming Marc Vietor, in a role that mostly facilitates exposition), suggests his problem could be solved by marrying an intelligent and cultured woman who could help him assimilate into high society and fortunately their childhood pal Emily (played with plucky confidence by Ellen Adair), a play-reader for a financially struggling West End theatre company, seems a perfect fit for the position. When Charles eventually becomes genuinely smitten with Emily, he nervously tries to make his affection known in a wonderfully funny wooing scene where Breckenridge and Adair's romantic comedy chemistry provides the highlight of the evening.

The play becomes how this seemingly mismatched couple adapt to being introduced to each other's worlds and playgoers should be particularly delighted with the second of the play's four acts (there are two intermissions) which has Charles, who has just purchased the theatre company, in a meeting with its manager (Jeremy Lawrence in one of his three broad comical roles), its leading lady (Birgit Huppuch, dripping stage charisma) and Emily. CharLes Wants the company to mount a production of The Merchant of Venice, which he's sure will turn a profit, while the others are enthusiastic about a new play they consider a masterpiece. Charles is doubtful about the chances for the new one to be a commercial success and he doesn't quite get how that fact is of no concern to the others.

Bennett's text is full of juicy, sharp-edged dialogue ("You ought to serve a brandy with very copy of this paper.") and set designer Roger Hanna's wood-framed publisher's office, along with Erin Murphy's crisp period costumes give the production a look of traditional Edwardian elegance. No matter what the public may want, this playgoer wants a season filled with more evenings like this one.

Photos by Richard Termine: Top: Ellen Adair and Rob Breckenridge; Bottom: Rob Breckenridge, Marc Vietor and Ellen Adair.

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From This Author Ben Peltz