Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Mint Theater Company

A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin Milne. Photo Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1926. rightsandimages@npg.org.uk

Review | The Lucky One | By A. A. Milne | Mint Theater Company | Directed by Jesse Marchese

… not so lucky … 

Set in a well-to-do English environment of the early twentieth century, The Lucky One is a story of two brothers:  Gerald (Robert David Grant), the younger, the parents’ favorite, is blithely successful at everything, from sports, to girl friends, to his big job in the foreign office.  Bob (Ari Brand), farmed out to a barrister’s office where he never should have been (but then, where should he be?), seethes with jealousy and bitterness.

And now the primal insult: Gerald has stolen Bob’s girl, Pamela (Paton Ashbrook).

That’s a good set-up for a play, and the dialogue is crisp and often amusing, but there are many loose character ends.  Ultimately we don’t understand who the characters really are or why they act as they do.

The mother, Lady Farrington (Deanne Lorette) and father, Sir James (Wynn Harmon) are cliché uptight ciphers, obtusely favoring their “best” son.  A live-in great aunt descends on occasion but plays no role in the action.  Why is she in the play?  Her heart-to-heart talks with whoever’s around lead us to think she has the wisdom of age and understanding of the characters that they lack for themselves but it turns out she misses the point as much as everyone else.  So, except for cute character color, played charmingly by Cynthia Harris, she’s superfluous.

Thomas (Andrew Fallaize) and Letty (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) engage in peppy, youthful romance shenanigans – the playwright may have included them as a healthy contrast to the tortured threesome romance of Gerald, Bob and Pamela, but when we realize they have no effect on the action either, interest wanes.

And who is this Pamela anyhow, the object of both brothers’ attention?  In this socially calculating world, we’re given no clue to her background or her parents.  What does she do for a living?  Or to pass the time?  No idea.  It’s easy to see why she’s attracted to Gerald but what on earth does she see also in that dull, untalented, incompetent Bob?

A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin Milne. Photo Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1926. rightsandimages@npg.org.uk

A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin Milne. Photo Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1926.

Maya Cantu’s fine, brief biography of Milne in the program quotes him as saying, “Every human is a mystery, and nobody knows the truth about anybody else.”  But if the audience hasn’t a clue about the characters and their inconsistencies, they drift off from engagement with the play.

With all its disappointments, The Lucky One has a magnificent episode near the end.  Gerald, having for once come out on the wrong side of winning, has a long speech in which he anguishes over the contrast between the rosy view people have of him and his inner insecurity and conflict.  Who knew?  Not Great Aunt Farrington, for sure, though she’s supposed to be an insight maven.  Still, it’s a beautifully written episode, magnificently inflected and performed by Robert David Grant as Gerald.  A true character change emerges before our eyes.

The Mint gives The Lucky One an appealing production in terms of set, costumes, and for the most part acting. Uncharacteristically for this brilliant theater company, the character of Bob is miscast and misdirected.  Milne fell short in giving Bob no distinguishing brilliance of wit or intellect to serve as a counterweight to Gerald’s glamour.  Still, the spastic movement and staring pop-eyed facial expressions Ari Brand adopts for the role make it all the harder to believe that Pamela could be possibly be attracted to him.  But then, we don’t have anything to go on where she’s concerned.

Milne was a prolific author and, as the program notes, was a highly successful playwright for many years before slipping from favor.  In 2004, the Mint produced what is said to be one of his best plays, Mr. Pim Passes By.  The Lucky One, first produced in 1922, is quite autobiographical:  sometimes that works for the author, sometimes not.  In any event, the best reason to see this play is to learn that A. A Milne, so well known as the author of Winnie-the-Pooh and other children’s stories, also wrote plays.

The Lucky One plays at the Beckett Theatre in Manhattan’s Theater Row on West 42nd Street through June 25th, 2017.  For more information and tickets,  click here.

Review | Fashions for Men by Ferenc Molnar | Directed by Davis McCallum | Mint Theater Company

 … back to Budapest with you! … 

I had the good luck to see Molnar’s Liliom recently off- off Broadway and it’s a marvelous play: in its way as good as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel, based on it.  So (though I admit the title struck me as a little silly) I was really keen to see another Molnar play. Molnar, a Hungarian, was after all among the most popular playwrights in Europe and America for much of the first half of the 20th century.

In this play of old world Europe, Peter Juhâsz, who owns a fine haberdashery in Budapest, knows his scarves, neckties, and how to cater to fancy customers well enough but he’s too angelic a man for business.  He gives credit too easily and, generally, he just doesn’t “get” the bottom line …  until, in a single day, because of his lack of financial acumen, the business is put into receivership and, to top it off, his wife leaves him for his best sales clerk.

His Excellency the Count, who appreciates Peter’s honesty,  saves the day by giving Peter a manager’s job on his country estate.  Paula, the pretty shop girl at the haberdashery has been carrying on a flirtation with the Count that she hopes will make her rich.  She follows Peter to the Count’s estate ostensibly out of loyalty to him but really to continue her quest for the Count, and the  “pretty places and beautiful clothes”  he could give her.

Kurt Rhoads and rachel Napoleon in FASHIONS FOR MEN by Ferenc Molnár.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> Photo: Richard Termine

Kurt Rhoads and Rachel Napoleon Photo: Mint Theater

Peter, who’s fallen in love with Paula and has no idea of her true purpose, tries to protect her from the nefarious desires of His Excellency who, finding his interfering a nuisance, fires Peter– back to Budapest with you!  Which for Paula turns out to be not quite the relief that she expected.

Will the desirable woman choose the rich older Count or the young, poor but oh-so good haberdasher? that is the question.

The choices that women make for love and the sacrifices they make for their lovers have illuminated many great issues in life and literature, but what’s illuminated here?  Fashions for Men seems a vehicle for no more than a familiar, always titillating, situation – the clandestine flirtation of a poor young woman with a sugar daddy, that and a few laughs.

Kurt Rhoads and Joe Delafield in FASHIONS FOR MEN by Ferenc Molnár. Photo: Richard Termine

Kurt Rhoads and Joe Delafield in Fashions for Men by Ferenc Molnár. Photo: Richard Termine

As Paula, Rachel Napoleon is charming though with a somewhat strained voice. Kurt Rhoads’ vitality and outstanding stage presence as the Count make one wonder why Paula would be drawn to limply virtuous Peter anyway, though he’s ably played by Joe Delafield?  Jeremy Lawrence as the wise old store clerk is completely natural and engaging.

A variety of briefly seen characters in Peter’s haberdashery  search for socks and raincoats with perfect comic timing and humorous costumes – of the period and yet hilarious.   The set, particularly that of the haberdashery, is breathtaking:  realistic and accurate in detail – and broadly gorgeous!

The mission of the Mint includes producing  “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten …to bring new vitality to these plays and to foster new life for them,” and every play I’ve ever seen at the Mint has done just that!

From George Aiken’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to D. H. Lawerence’s The Daughter-In-Law (who knew Lawrence wrote plays?), to Hemingway’s The Fifth Column (who knew Hemingway wrote plays?) to Wife to James Whelan by Teresa Deevy (who’s that?) and many more — each has been a revelation of just the kind the Mint intends. What a record!

Fashions for Men shares with these a fine production and the opportunity to come to know more broadly theater of the past.  Still, I wonder if, among Molnar’s plays (not including Liliom which is fairly well known), this was the best choice for a revival.

Fashions for Men plays at The Mint Theater on West 43rd Street in Manhattan through April 12, 2015.

Review | London Wall by John Van Druten | Directed by Davis McCallum | Mint Theater Company

…from palace to office…

In James Barrie’s comedy The Twelve Pound Look of 1920, seen recently, a woman who boldly divorced her wealthy, aristocratic husband finds independence and contentment as a typist … but the entire play is set in the husband’s palatial home.  John Van Druten, eleven years later, thrusts us directly into the woman’s workplace:  we’re in the office in London Wall — with a great set by Marion Williams — and the play’s about the women and men who work there.  Amidst the file cabinets, desks and typewriters, we’re drawn into the lives of typists and clerks in a London barrister’s office, and what they face in finding love, off-hours entertainment, spiritual satisfaction and enough money to pay the rent.  What a difference in eleven years!

Miss Pat Milligan is the newest and youngest of the typists who’s set upon by the in-house skirt chaser, Mr. Brewer, the firm’s handsome, young lawyer.  The older and experienced Miss Janus warms Pat about him, but how can a pretty nineteen year-old girl, alone in the world and with a minuscule salary, resist the attentions of a charming professional man who wines and dines her?  Best of all — and what really gets her heart racing — Brewer takes her to the theater!

Through the lives in this busy, working office, Van Druten lets us see love in all its parts:  innocent, worldly, youthful, mature, young naïve, old naïve, heartbreaking and rewarding.  A strength of this play is its unobtrusive exploration of the several ages of women, but men, too are given their due, with the young clerk Birkenshaw and the elderly head of the firm, Mr. Wagner, rounding things out in terms of gender.

Two in this fine cast particularly capture the rapid-fire humor, and tossed-off ironies of 1930’s comedies, Stephen Plunkett as Mr. Brewer and Julia Coffey as the knowing but vulnerable Miss Janus.  Laurie Kennedy is amusing as the vague — but she knows perfectly well what she’s doing — elderly patron of the firm.

Jonathan Hogan is the firm’s authoritative head, Mr. Walker, who has one foot in the old ways and the other stretching to take the big step forward, an early — and I’d bet influential — version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s King of Siam.  Old school while open to new realities, Walker struggles to cope fairly with that current huge challenge: women in the office!

One can see why the lusty Brewer sets his sights on the pretty Miss Pat Milligan:  Elise Kibler plays the part with charming sass but often speaks in a casually conversational tone, just above a whisper, without projecting her voice — a try at some some kind of naturalism but the upshot is you can’t hear her.

John Van Druten went on to write some of the finest, longest running, and most popular plays, in London and on Broadway, including I Remember Mama, The Voice Of The Turtle, Bell, Book and Candle, and I Am A Camera;  and he also directed, and wrote for the movies.  He was a real theater man — no wonder Mr. Brewer is able to turn Miss Milligan’s head by giving her the best kind of evening there is — by taking her to a play, probably one by John Van Druten.  Thanks to the Mint Theater for giving us the chance to see this enjoyable play — the best kind of evening there is!

London Wall plays at The Mint Theater, Midtown West in Manhattan, through April 14, 2014.

Review | A Little Journey by Rachel Crothers | Directed by Jackson Gay | Mint Theater Company

… All aboard …

A Little Journey is about what happens to a group of strangers back when travel across our broad United States meant a four-day train trip.  Who’d be sharing your Pullman “sleeper car”?  You never knew but by the end of the trip you were liable to know everyone really well.

Time:  Spring 1914.   Place:  The inside of a Pullman sleeping car bound for the Pacific Coast, the set a marvelous evocation of a sleeping car which turns round in order to convey the train’s forward movement.  The “All Aboard” sounds.  Last minute visitors are shuffled off, the train pulls out of the station, and a classy seeming young woman, Julie, is near to weeping.

Not only has Julie been abandoned by her lover, she’s lost her ticket and will have to get off the train — until a free-spirited Western type of guy, Jim, prevails on her to let him lend her the money for a new ticket.  And we’ve got several more days ahead for Jim to fall in love and romance her, and for the disparities between her high class Eastern upbringing and conventional views to be overcome by Jim with his own tough story and new age (for that age), rough and ready brand of personal salvation — if they can be overcome.

Beyond differences of gender, occupation and class, people become interested in one another — and in the burgeoning romance.  The deaf old lady and her granddaughter returning home out West gossip with the fancy New York matron.  Two Princeton boys take an interest in the pretty granddaughter.  Encouraged by Jim, Julie’s upper-crust edge softens;  she gets involved with a waif of woman who seems more destitute than she herself, giving the woman temporary relief by holding her baby, and finding a new attachment in the baby.

But Julie’s  problems won’t go away (actually, the solution’s obvious but the playwright isn’t ready to let it happen so artificially strings things out):  rejected by her New York lover because she doesn’t have her own money, devoid of occupation because as a well-educated woman of the early 20th Century she has no marketable skills, she faces the prospect of life with relatives out West who don’t want her.  And then, just when her private sorrows seem overwhelming, disaster strikes, affecting everybody.

In one of the most convincing, though awkwardly staged, episodes, the common disaster faced by the passengers transforms this disparate cross-section of American society into a unified, deeply bonded group.  Even the Black sleeping car porter, who in spite of his great dignity has so far been treated as a fetch-and-carry (and how uncomfortable is that to watch, even when you know “it’s a play”), gets to join the team.  Faced with a poignant and important dilemma, they rise to the occasion, all pitching in and making contributions, and working it out together.

It’s fascinating to learn that Rachel Crothers was one of the most successful playwrights in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.  Still, as a play, A Little Journey seems somewhat dated and over-given to easy romantic solutions to stony problems.   Every potential romance blooms, the Whites and the Black man link hands — things happen because they’re “nice,” without character development to support them.

Some of the sense of sentimentality might have been overcome with better casting.  The acting is, at least for the most part, competent but only Samantha Soule gives a genuinely strong performance as Julie.

Again and again the Mint Theater’s productions of little known plays by well known authors, and other outstanding finds from the past have brought its audiences — certainly myself — thrilling illumination.  A Little Journey doesn’t have the strength of many of the Mint’s superb discoveries.

But with its depictions of social categories, and glowingly optimistic view of America set in the context of that great symbol of American optimism — the journey West — A Little Journey is a rich and important document of social history — and if The Mint hadn’t produced it, who would know?  That, and a seductive nostalgia, are excellent reasons to see and enjoy it.  Disparities of wealth, class, education and race dissipate.  This was one of those moments in our history when one could believe that there was a place for everybody on board.

A Little Journey plays at the Mint Theater on Manhattan’s West side through July 10.

Scott Barrow as a farmer in the neighborhood gets the treatment from Dr. Knock while Chris Nixon as his  friend looks on.  Photo: Richard Termine 

Review | Doctor Knock, Or the Triumph of Medicine by Jules Romains | Directed by Gus Kaikkonen | Mint Theater Company

… the best medicine …

Dr. Knock (the first K is pronounced as in Evel Knievel) probably doesn’t have a degree in medicine but that doesn’t stop him from practicing it.  This play is about a quack doctor but — most of all — it’s the study of a really terrific con man on the job.

As the play opens, Dr. Knock is taking over from Dr. Parpalaid whose provincial practice he’s purchased on an installment plan.  At first, the older Parpalaid seems to be taking advantage of this nice, new young man Knock by working out the payment schedule to his own advantage — a beautiful red herring since it’s nothing compared to the way Dr. Knock is going to con the world, or for starters the 2,000 souls in and around St. Maurice, France.

Review | The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd by D. H. Lawrence | Directed by Stuart Howard | Mint Theater Company

The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd is a three-act play by D. H. Lawrence about family and class tensions, and to my knowledge there’s not a more compelling production currently running in New York City.

The Mint Theater, under the direction of the knowing and dedicated Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, produces little known plays by well-known authors — thank heavens!. I’ll never forget their Uncle Tom’s Cabin by George Aiken after Stowe’s novel — and learning that it was the most-produced play of the 19th Century. Or Echoes of The War by J. M. Barrie — who actually wrote something besides Peter Pan.  But for me the discovery of plays by authors who are known as novelists has been particularly revelatory.  Mint produced D. H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law in 2002-03.  Lawrence wrote plays?  Fine plays?  Eight of them?  The raw psychology, sexuality and class issues Lawrence wrote about made it hard enough to publish a book — it was even harder to pull together what it takes to produce a play that breasts the current.

For the duration of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, our eyes never leave the interior of the Holroyd’s home, a cottage in a Midlands mining town like that where Lawrence grew up.  The central conflict involves a love triangle.  Mr. Holroyd is a tall, strong, handsome coal miner, given to brutality when drunk and angered.  Mrs. Holroyd is above him in station and lets him know it;  she’s a fine boned and naturally elegant woman in this rat-infested though otherwise cozy-seeming home.  In contrast to Holroyd, young Blackmore, who’s in love with Mrs. Holroyd, is intelligent and sensitive and a skilled professional — an electrician — thus also above Holroyd in earning power, status and independence.

How will this turn out and how will it affect the Holroyd’s two children — and how will they affect the resolution?  In outline, the outcome of this classic situation may seem predictable but it’s not because, as in his novels, Lawrence is engaged in his passionate quest for truths below the surface.  Complex forces seethe and interact:  convictions, conventions, class, economics, age, fears, appetite, desire, and idiosyncrasy, and you won’t know what happens, or how it happens, until it’s over.  Nor are the ethical issues easily resolved.

The acting is superb to the point where it’s impossible to separate in one’s mind the actors from their characters — even when the play’s over they continue to live.  Eric Martin Brown is the burly, handsome Holroyd, Julia Coffey the refined but tough Mrs. Holroyd, Nick Cordileone the active minded, able Blackmore — I’ve never seen an actor convey erotic desire more persuasively.  Dalton Harrod played the Holroyd’s forthright and courageous son the night I saw the play, and Amanda Roberts was the charming and conflicted Holroyd daughter.  The perfect casting of these and others in the cast in terms of physical mien and acting skill brings to mind the limitations of repertory groups (see Twelfth Night, reviewed below).

The play has, I think, a flaw.  In order to bring about the resolution, the third act has to cram in a lot of information about the coal miners’  lives and work that hasn’t been prepared in Acts I and II, and also introduces several important characters not mentioned above.  The assimilation of new material siphons off some of the emotional intensity of the ending but that’s OK —  there’s plenty to spare.

The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd plays at the Mint Theater on West 43rd Street in NYC through March 29.

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