Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since New York Theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on plays you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo.
The Mint has long been one of my favorite theatre companies. Ours is a throwaway culture of “Here today, gone tomorrow,” but Jonathan Bank, the theatre’s Artistic Director, always tries to counteract this by producing long-forgotten gems which didn’t deserve to be resigned to the dustbin of theatre history. You can stream three plays, produced in the past two or three years, and all are worthwhile.
The Fatal Weakness by George Kelly (Grace’s uncle) was a modest success on Broadway in 1947, with one of the great stars of the 30s and 40s, Ina Claire. It’s a beautifully-constructed play about Modern Marriage. Ollie Espenshade, a middle-aged matron, learns to her dismay that her husband, Paul, is having an affair and plans to divorce her. At the same time her daughter, Penny, a pro-feminist, seems totally uninterested in her marriage and is keen on self-fulfillment. Ollie is hurt and shocked at first; but, gradually, she comes to see that being divorced is her path to freedom; whereas Penny decides to try to save her marriage. This is the one flaw in Kelly’s otherwise flawless dramaturgy, because she makes that decision offstage.
All the actors, under Jesse Marchese’s fine-tuned direction, are pitch perfect. Kristin Griffith, long one of our finest actresses, slides from helplessness to empowerment with effortless ease and Victoria Mack is perfect in her inane self-involvement. Sean Patrick Hopkins turns in a touching performance, as her husband, an archetypal Nice Guy who is bewildered by his wife’s behavior, and Cliff Bemis manages to make Ollie’s errant husband, Paul, almost likeable.
Jonathan Bank seems to makes a speciality of unjustly forgotten plays by women; particularly, Irish women. He’s unearthed the complete works of Teresa Deevy, once a leading light of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre before fading into obscurity, and his productions of her plays have more than made the case for her inclusion in the permanent dramatic repertory. His final streamed play, Hazel Ellis’ Women Without Men, deserves to join Ms. Deevy’s august company. It takes place in the teachers’ lounge at an all-girl boarding school, and the teachers are all, to varying degrees, practically basket-cases, constantly bickering with each other. Into their midst comes a young woman named Miss Wade, a new hire on her first job. She starts out with enthusiasm and idealism but quickly finds herself sucked into the constant catfights. Her particular nemesis is the contentious Miss Connor, a middle-aged sourpuss who has spent 20 years working on her magnum opus, a book about ideas of beauty throughout history. Miss Wade has way out of the morass she finds herself in, a quasi-fiance she could marry, but all of the other women are stuck. A crisis is precipitated when someone shreds Miss Connor’s book. Finally, the culprit is revealed.
Jenn Thompson’s subtle direction is just right, and her cast couldn’t be better. When a director has actresses in her cast of the calibre of Kellie Overbey (Miss Connor) and Mary Bacon (as Miss Strong, who copes with her dead-end life with cynicism), both of whom are perfect, how can she go wrong?
Vicki R. Davis’ lounge set, a room which looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, and Martha Hally’s perfect, doughty costumes are a feast for the eyes.
The third offering from the Mint, Harold Chapin’s The New Morality, is less satisfying than the first two. Like The Fatal Weakness it, too, is about modern marriage; but it seldom says anything trenchant about its subject.
It’s set on a houseboat in the Thames. A wife has made catty comments about a woman her husband has been lavishing attention on, which have been overheard and which spiral out of control, causing repercussions which threaten to alienate all the characters from each other. That’s about it. Jonathan Banks’ production is his usual first-rate job, but he has failed to make a case for the play as worthy of revival.
Finally, I saw a one-woman “play” presented via Zoom called “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies,”written and performed by Jessica Sher. This is a real rarity: a Bette Davis impersonation by a woman. I have never been much of a Bette Davis fan. I find her acting to be rather mannered – as is Ms. Sher’s performance, which is delivered straight into the Zoom lens. Mostly, her stories are about Davis’ fights with the studio system.
If you’re a Bette Davis aficionado you might enjoy this; but as for me, I found it a bumpy ride.
Mint Theatre’s Summer Stock Streaming Festival: https://minttheater.org/current-production/production-summer-stock-streaming-festival/. To receive a password, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org Mint in the subject line.
To view Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies go to www.BetteDavisAintForSissiesTix.com
"It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry."
—George F. Will
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”