By Beatrice Williams-Rude
Surely the most satisfying job imaginable must be excavating for plays for The Mint Theater Company, which constantly mines gems. In its current offering, Miles Malleson’s Conflict, they’ve struck pure gold.
While written in the 1920s and reflecting that time, it also holds the mirror up to our time. It concerns politics, sex, class and even freedom of the press and health care. The plot concerns the wealthy, aristocratic, and staunchly conservative Lord Bellingdon; his pampered, willful daughter Dare; Dare’s presumed fiancé, Major Sir Ronald Clive, who is also her father’s best friend; and the mysterious Tom Smith. The play opens with a search for an intruder, who, when he’s found, is revealed to have been the Cambridge room-mate of Sir Ronald. In a case of “how the mighty have fallen,” Smith is now a beggar, having been unable to support himself as a writer after his family lost its fortune and both parents died. He plunged from the upper level of the social order to its lower depths.
(Those familiar with James M. Barrie’s play, What Every Woman Knows, may recognize the search for the intruder, who, as in Conflict, becomes the male love interest.)
Both Sir Ronald and Lord Bellingdon give Smith money, not because they empathize with his plight, but really just so he’ll go away. Which he does. The amounts given to Smith are but walking-around money for the donors, but sufficient for Smith to turn his life around starting with a visit to a doctor.
Sir Ronald is induced to stand for Parliament, as a Tory, of course. His Labour opponent, expected to be one of the heavy hitters, is unknown. Turns out to be Tom Smith, in whom Lady Dare’s interest has been piqued. When, after attending one of his rallies, she asks him how it is that the newspapers espouse her views, and those of her father, not Smith’s, he replies, “Because you own them.”
The tone of what had been agreed to be a clean fight, a battle of ideas, of programs, threatens to change dramatically when Dare’s romantic interest in Smith is revealed. But Dare, suddenly empowered, threatens her father and Sir Ronald: if they stoop to personal attacks on Smith, she will reveal that she and Sir Ronald have indulged in an affair for two or three years, under her father’s roof.
The two men then prepare to campaign on policies, not personal issues.
The work is rich in potent and hilarious one liners, most coming from Lord Bellingdom. When Dare starts to assert herself he roars that he’d rather be governed by Bolsheviks than by women. He’d earlier warned of the perils of having an open mind—everything falls out. Smith’s landlady makes pithy observations including why the lower classes don’t vote in their own self-interest.
Advice to writers generally includes “write what you know,” which is what Miles Malleson has done. He delineates class differences with a scalpel, not a hacksaw. His characters are fully developed, not mere sounding boards for ideas. As FDR was later to note, that one third of the nation was ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed, Conflict’s Smith uses the example of 100 people—two were wealthy; eight lived well; 30 managed to scrape by and the remaining 60 were in dire circumstances.
Facets of both Smith’s and Sir Ronald’s background mirror Malleson’s. Miles Malleson is a polymath: playwright, screen writer, song writer, and versatile actor.
The beautiful, tasteful production was skillfully directed by Jenn Thompson; sets by John McDermott; lighting by Mary Louise Geiger; sound by Toby Algya; appropriate costumes by Martha Hally.
The redoubtable Lord Bellingdon is marvelously embodied in Graeme Malcolm; the aristocratic Tory gets a nigh on perfect portrayal by Henry Clarke as Sir Ronald; the earnest Tom Smith is played with fiery passion by Jeremy Beck, and the lovely linchpin, Lady Dare, is beautifully presented by Jessie Shelton. Amy White is a delight as Mrs. Robinson, Smith’s landlady, as is James Prendergast as Daniels, the butler. Jasmin Walker is charming as the mischievous Mrs. Tremayne.
So, dear readers, rush to the Mint: The stage is set for a clean, no-mudslinging campaign.
Photos: Todd Cerveris
Conflict, officially opens on Thursday, June 21, at the Beckett Theatre, where it will play through July 21.
The Mint Theater Company
Theatre Row, 410 West Forty-Second Street (between Ninth and Tenth Aves. in Manhattan
Running time is two hours and five minutes with an intermission. www.minttheater.org