By Elizabeth Ahlfors
The New Morality, a frothy comedy of manners, comments on a society advancing toward World War I and a drastically different world. The heroine, Betty Jones, played by Brenda Meaney, is a rueful madcap who leaves her husband befuddled and her friends bewildered. Behind the play’s flippant repartee, however, is a portent of the new strong-willed woman of the changing times and their men who struggled to understand them.
Written by Harold Chapin, the plot is simple. It is 1911, the hottest summer in London’s history. The setting is an upscale houseboat community on the Thames where Betty has been steaming with fury as her husband, Col. Ivor Jones, danced attendance all summer over a neighbor, Muriel Wister. Finally, Betty had enough. She told Muriel off in language not befitting her class.
Muriel and the whole community are outraged. Etiquette is the glue that binds society together and this connection was breached in a most unacceptable way. Yet, while Betty realizes the enormity of her outlandish behavior, when her husband asks — then demands — an apology to Muriel, Betty refuses. When Muriel’s distraught husband, Wister, pays a visit to the Jones’ houseboat, expecting Betty’s apology, she scoffs and mocks him. Even after Wister threatens to sue her, Betty is obstinate.
The men question how and why such a scandalous thing can happen but, as Betty’s brother, lawyer Geoffrey Belasis, points out, times are changing. “There can be very few people at the present day who are really without a working knowledge of—bad language.” There is a new morality but men revere the status quo, never progressing in a moral sense.
What finally softens Betty’s stand surprises her staid husband and it is far from the jealousy, heat and boredom. “Ivor,” she says, “I am an idealist—I detest the mundane world. I don’t care how unfaithful you are to me, but you must not make yourself ridiculous.”
The cast effectively paints a nuanced portrait of the times. Meaney (Roundabout’s Indian Ink) expressively adds a wry spark behind Betty’s languor that draws the other characters around her, especially her chum, Alice, played by Clemmie Evans in her off-Broadway debut. As Ivor Jones, Michael Frederic (You Can’t Take it With You) is the portrait of an behind-the-times Edwardian Colonel. As Muriel’s clueless but sensitive husband, Wister, Ned Noyes (Bill W and Dr. Bob) rules the strong Act III. Christian Campbell (HBO’s True Detective) as Belasis readjusts the men’s ramblings as they stumble trying to understand what to do to keep the status quo. Capable supporting players are Kelly McCready as Lesceline, the maid and Douglas Rees as man-servant, Wooten.
Directed by Jonathan Bank, the play runs a leisurely course in three acts. For the houseboat, named “Hyacinth,” Steven Kemp designed a well-detailed feminine bedroom setting and later, added Japanese lanterns for dinner on the deck, effectively lighted by Christian DeAngelis. Costumes by Carisa Kelly’s ladies’ dresses reflect the hot weather although men are fully dressed in jackets and ties.
The New Morality is presented at the Mint Theater to honor the centenary of Harold Chapin’s heroic death at age 29. Chapin was born in Brooklyn New York in 1886. His mother was an actress and suffragette and after divorcing his father, she moved with her three-year-old son to England. Later acknowledged as having a well-rounded understanding of the theater, Chapin worked as an actor, director and stage manager as well as a playwright. After World War I broke out in 1914, Chapin joined the 6th London Field Ambulance RAMC although he was an American citizen. He was killed on the battlefield at Loos in 1915.
The New Morality was originally produced in 1920 at the Comedy Theatre. Previews began August 23, 2015 and the play runs from September 21 opening to October 11, 2015. Tickets are $55 with some half-price tickets (CheapTix) and Premium Seats ($65) available for most performances. Runs one hour, 55 minutes.
Tickets: 866-811-4111 Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street, NYC