The Summer Stock Streaming Festival is a free triple feature online through July 19th from The Mint Theater, which has been unearthing forgotten old plays and making them shine for a quarter of a century. They also have been videotaping the full productions since 2013, in front of a live audience, with sufficient technical savvy to be fit for television broadcast. You might have seen “London Wall” on Channel 13’s Theater Close-Up. My review of that 2014 broadcast , in which I spend space detailing the difference between viewing the show on stage and on a screen, feels quaint in light of the past four months. (The broadcast had the option of captioning, which the online festival videos do not – a shortcoming.)
Of the 18 Mint productions that are online (but password protected), artistic director Jonathan Bank chose three for the festival. The ones he picked were produced between 2014 and 2016, and written between 1911 and 1946, — Harold Chapin’s “The New Morality,” Hazel Ellis’s “Women Without Men” and George Kelly’s “The Fatal Weakness.”
I was curious why Bank chose these three in particular. His answer speaks to this moment in more ways than I had expected:
“So, I didn’t want to air anything too recent; I wanted to help people fill in gaps in their Mint viewing. Because we were offering three at the same time, I wanted some variety of accent. Frankly, I expect people to hop around, more than actually sit down for a few hours straight. I had to consider where there might be estates who would object. I considered what actually looked good. And finally, there was a specific number of contracts I was looking to get, based on the complicated formulas of PPP loans and forgiveness. Without that, this would be really unlikely — believe it or not, we’ll spend something close to $50,000 in salaries to make these available for two weeks. I’m glad to take stimulus money and put it into the hands of actors who may not get paid to act again for a year.”
Intentionally or not, the three plays each offer a nearly anthropological look at attitudes towards women over the past century. There are hints of a kind of a proto-feminism in all three works, although, ironically, the earlier the play the easier it is to make this case. To call these plays old-fashioned misses the point. They are as much historical as theatrical treasures, and the Mint delivers crisply edited videos and lush period design
“The New Morality,” written by Harold Chapin in 1911, four years before he died in World War I at age 29, has the wispiest of plots. Betty( Brenda Meaney) a forthright modern woman, although also a bit of an eccentric, lives aboard an upper-class summer houseboat on the Thames. Resentful of her husband for paying attention to Muriel, a married in the neighboring boat, Betty insults her. This all happens before the play begins. The thrust of the play is that both Betty’s husband and Muriel’s husband tries to get Betty to apologize, but she refuses, even when Muriel’s husband threatens to sue for libel. The play becomes fascinating when the plot gives away to the speeches that explain the title. One of the characters points out that Man has achieved none of the “moral desires” spelled out six thousand years ago in the Ten Commandments, “nor—which is much more significant of his moral stagnation—has he added one solitary ideal to their number.”
“How about women?” another character interjects. “She has added to it…” – and begins to catalogue how, using Betty’s refusal to apologize as an example. It’s an intriguing and in some ways inspiring speech, especially when you remember that at the time it was written women did not even have the right to vote.
Hazel Ellis was an Irish playwright with two hits in Ireland back to back in the 1930s before disappearing from the stage. “Women Without Men” (1938) is set in the teacher’s lounge , with walls of a “sickly green shade” in a private girls’ boarding school in Ireland, much like the one that the playwright attended. An eager young teacher, Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton), becomes increasingly disillusioned after becoming subjected to the “trivial tortures” of her bickering, backbiting fellow teachers who resent her popularity with the students. The formidable Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey) becomes her principal nemesis, and accuses Miss Wade of stealing her life’s work. Miss Wade is baffled by the pettiness. But the usually cynical Miss Strong (Mary Bacon, who gets the cleverest repartee to deflate Miss Wade’s naïveté) offers a straightforward explanation, a bit too on point: “Look at us. A small group of women all cooped up together with no release from each other save in the privacy of our bedrooms. Women brought together not by choice, not by liking, but by the necessity of earning our living.” If their lives are lonely and unfulfilled, the characters are vividly etched, and their interactions often amusing, in what is an ensemble piece that serves as a showcase for each actress. Miss Connor’s life work was putting together a tome entitled “The History of Beauty Throughout the Ages.” — delusional, perhaps, but also admirable, and heartbreaking, using an imagined past full of beauty to try to make up for a present that feels devoid of it.
George Kelly, the uncle of actress Grace Kelly, was a popular Broadway playwright and director in the 1920s, whose 1924 play “The Show Off” has been revived on Broadway a half dozen times (most recently in 1992) and whose 1925 play about a woman who destroys her marriage, “Craig’s Wife,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But he had long since lost favor with the public when he wrote his final Broadway play in 1946, “The Fatal Weakness,” also about a broken marriage, which lasted four months and had not appeared on a New York stage for nearly seven decades. Briskly directed by Jesse Marchese, with a seven-member cast that includes a couple of comic standouts, the Mint production is an entertaining comedy, up to a point.
At the outset, Mrs. Ollie Espenshade (Kristin Griffith) receives an anonymous letter in her drawing room that her husband of 28 years is having an affair. With the aid of her gossipy divorced friend Mrs. Mable Wentz (Cynthia Darlow, who gets most of the best lines, and does the most with them), Mrs. Espenshade spends much of the play trying to track down the truth of the accusation. A subplot concerns Mrs Espenshade’s daughter Penny (Victoria Mack) who has modern views on marriage that the playwright clearly views as cockamamie – “I refuse to take marriage seriously…it’s an experience that the majority of women should have. But… if it’s persisted in, it can become a habit.” Her attitude is causing a strain in her marriage to the breaking point.
A running joke in the play is that Mrs. Espenshade is such a romantic that she attends weddings of strangers, and winds up quite taken with the story of her husband’s affair with a plain woman doctor who grew up in an orphanage. I actually wish Kelly had run with this joke more, because the serious scenes feel artificial.