Seeing “The New Morality” the day after Thomas Bradshaw’s sex-plicit “Fulfillment” gave the title of Harold Chapin’s century-old comedy of manners far more irony than the playwright surely intended. Chapin set “The New Morality” aboard an upper-class summer houseboat on the Thames in 1911, which is probably the year he wrote it. Four year later, Chapin had had two of his plays produced on Broadway, with “The New Morality” scheduled to follow, when Chapin was killed at age 29, a casualty of World War I.
Unearthed by the indispensable Mint Theater, whose mission is to “excavate buried theatrical treasures,” the play is being given the Mint’s usual quality production, with a pleasing set and costumes, and a capable seven-member cast that almost made me put aside my longtime lobbying for a legal ban on American actors using British accents on New York stages. Still, for all the skill on display under the direction of Jonathan Bank, the Mint persuaded me only that “The New Morality” is a rediscovered historical and anthropological treasure, not a theatrical one.
In the wispiest of plots, Betty, annoyed at the attention that her husband has been paying to Muriel (the married woman on the next houseboat over), tells Muriel off in public. As Betty herself admits: “..you can’t go calling people dog-show names on the deck of their own houseboat in a voice loud enough to be heard across the river.”
“The New Morality” begins after this scandalous behavior (we never meet Muriel, only hear about her.) Betty’s husband Jones and Muriel’s husband Wister try hard to get Betty to apologize to Muriel. Although Betty understands why everybody’s upset, she refuses to apologize. Wister threatens to sue her for criminal libel, although he’s apologetic about it.
It’s all quite light and inconsequential, spread out over three acts (with two intermissions), none longer than half an hour. We are clearly meant to see the dialogue as witty and sophisticated, although it comes off mostly as just quaint, and Betty as a strong-willed modern woman, although she seems mostly just eccentric.
But then come the speeches that earn the play its title, and provide some meat on which to chew. Belasis, Betty’s brother, a solicitor called to the houseboat to help protect Betty from her own bad behavior, observes:
“Something like six thousand years ago ten commandments were framed embodying the sum-total of man’s moral desires: to be just, to be honest, to be pure, to be truthful, etcetera, etcetera. Six thousand years have elapsed and he has neither achieved those desires, nor—which is much more significant of his moral stagnation—has he added one solitary ideal to their number….”
Wister interjects: “How about woman?….She has added to it” – the beginning of a long and fascinating monologue, all the more so when we remember that women at the time did not even have the right to vote.
The New Morality
By Harold Chapin
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Sets Steven C. Kemp
Costumes Carisa Kelly
Lights Christian DeAngelis
Original Music & Sound Jane Shaw
Props Joshua Yocom
Casting Judy Bowman
Dialects & Dramaturgy Amy Stoller
Cast: Christian Campbell as Belasis, Clemmie Evans as Alice (Betty’s friend), Michael Frederic as Jones (Betty’s husband), Kelly McCready as Lesceline the maid, Brenda Meaney as Betty, Ned Noyes as Wister, Douglas Ree as Wooten, the man-servant.
Running time: one hour, 50 minutes, including two ten-minute intermissions.
The New Morality is scheduled to run through October 25th.