A Very Contemporary Study of Fascinating, Everlasting Conflicts
By Myra Chanin
I never thought that a previously unproduced play written the year I was born by someone whose name I’d never heard would still be so emotionally and intellectually riveting and relevant four score and four years later, but The Mint Theatre Company’s production of Miles Malleson’s Yours Unfaithfully easily accomplishes that feat and more. Malleson, an immensely talented British actor/director/playwright, who worked constantly on stage and in films from 1911 to 1965, looked like a hobgoblin with poppy eyes and a double chin and often played comic roles in British films. I particularly enjoyed his performance as Canon Chasuble, the suitor of Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Prism in J. Arthur Rank’s first rate 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest starring Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell.
Malleson’s grew up in a Victorian world where the agnosticism of his parents clashed with his passionately puritanical grandmother’s fire-and-brimstone interrogations about his impure thoughts. Ultimately Malleson’s socially progressive lifestyle conquered his granny-given guilt and fear but the conflicts between these opposites function as the frame of Yours Unfaithfully. In his own life Malleson practiced what he preached. His first wife (he had three) quickly embarked on a decades long, off and on, sexually and intellectually passionate affair with the hardly shlepper British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate Sir Bertrand Russell which Malleson, according to his errant missus, accepted with great understanding. As he wrote in Youth in 1916: “People don’t face all the facts of love and … emotion … and all the rest of it. Individuals solve these questions for themselves, or try to, in dark little corners of their lives and say nothing about it. It’s all so difficult and often ugly … when it ought to be simple and terrific and beautiful.” Unfaithfully Yours depicts the emotional struggle between unexciting marital compatibility/fidelity vs. the thrill of an inspiring, energizing extra-marital fling.
Initially we meet five upper-class, apparently traditional, country-dwelling Brits (who gradually prove to be anything but that) at a tea hosted by the soooo-happily-married-that-they-are-the-envy-of-all-their-fiends Merediths, Anne (Elisabeth Gray) and Stephen (Max von Essen). While Anne exchanges pleasantries with and pours tea for their guests, Dr. Alan Kirby (Todd Cerveris), a psychiatrist-cum-old family friend and Diana Streatfield (Mikaela Izquierdo), a gorgeous, lonely widow whose aviator husband was recently killed when his plane crashed, Stephen paces back and forth, ranting about the philosophical rigidity of his father, The Rev Cannon Gordon Meredith aka Padre (Stephen Schnetzer), who not only espouses moral views contrary to Stephen’s, but even worse, is better at Cricket than his son!
Who is the fox in this happy hen house? Excessive compatibility, which Goodwife Anne believes has had a detrimental effect on Stephen’s work. Stephen’s the author of a somewhat successful first novel who seems unable gear himself up emotionally to start his second one. Anne keeps busy operating a surprisingly successful school-ette which she opened when she and Stephen couldn’t find a school for their children to attend which taught anything they approved of.
After Steven rejects Anne’s suggestion to sow some wild oats in London and become less dependent on her, Anne, smugly convinced that a liaison between her husband and the widow Streatfield will do them all a world of good, takes a hand in helping it happen by leading Stephen and Diana down the path to the garden when the curtain falls.
Two months later in Act 2, it ain’t necessarily so.
Ten days after that at the Meredith’s London pied-a-terre, it still ain’t necessary so but in an even more complicated way and as for the upshot of this comedy with lots of content, resolution remains unresolved.
Yours Unfaithfully is a truthful, funny and touching play – a complex play about complex characters with great opposing facial and body language under Jonathan Bank’s subtle but clear direction. Elisabeth Grey is exceptional as Anne Meredith, trying her hardest but unable ultimately to let her brain rule her heart. Max von Essen is a true British boy-o who ultimately realizes that not hurting his wife Anne is more important than following his progressive beliefs.
Malleson, no small womanizer himself, allows the Padre to tout fidelity in a heartfelt, honest speech that even today will strike a chord in many theatergoers, including my son, an IT wizard whose been happily married to an fascinating woman for 15 years, and me, after more than a half century with his sometimes delightful, sometimes disagreeable dad: There is something in marriage beyond the ordinary instinctive desire for companionship, beyond friendship, beyond common interests, even beyond children; but which grows out of all these things … a deep spiritual union…only achieved by life-long faithfulness… by loyalty and trust; an unswerving loyalty, one to the other, and a complete trust that such loyalty is there—unassailable… and then, as you grow old together, there comes into the two lives perhaps the profoundest earthly happiness that we’re permitted to know.
As for the happy ending, let me quote Anne, “Endings aren’t happy things, anyhow! We’re right in the middle.”
Photos: Richard Termine
The Beckett Theatre at Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street between 9th and Dyer Avenues). Tickets can be purchased online at Telecharge.com, by phone at 212/239-6200 or in person at the Theatre Row Box Office. For more information, visit minttheater.org.