Fresh Kiss, Fresh Courage: ‘Yours Unfaithfully’
Miles Malleson (1888-1969), the British author of Yours Unfaithfully, the Mint Theater’s latest discovery of lost or forgotten plays deserving another look, was something of a Renaissance man. He made a distinctive mark as an actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright, while also being known for his then radical thinking on various social issues.
Although represented on this side of the pond as a director and actor on a small number of occasions (he staged the famous Old Vic production of The Critic starring Laurence Olivier in 1946), his plays seem never to have made it across. Yours Unfaithfully didn’t even make it to the London stage, and the Mint’s production is its well-deserved world premiere.
Unfaithfully Yours, written in 1933, embodies certain autobiographical features of Malleson’s own unconventional life, marital and otherwise. It examines with intelligence and sensitivity, but few emotional fireworks, the ramifications of the once scandalous idea of open marriage, or, at least, the idea that married couples should, within reason and with mutual respect, be free to engage in extramarital canoodlings.
Two of its three acts are framed more or less in the style of a domestic high comedy, with fashionable, well-educated, highly articulate sophisticates of the cigarettes-and-cocktails class discussing serious issues much as in a discussion play by Shaw. But the laughs are few, the drinks are minimal, and the cigarettes non-existent.
Instead, the script’s appealing promise dissipates into talky artificiality, largely, I believe, because of its otherwise capable actors being out of their depth; instead of true Miles Malleson we get faux-Noël Coward. Malleson’s play should only receive another staging if it can find a cast (think anyone from Downton Abbey) that can carry off its English savoir faire and, most particularly, its accents. Here—despite one actor’s having studied at Oxford—they’re either strained, inconsistent, or invisible under director Jonathan Bank’s earnest but often uninspired direction.
Stephen (Max von Essen, too American) and Anne Meredith (Elisabeth Gray, elegant but forced) have been married for eight years; he’s a writer with controversial, advanced ideas, currently in a writing rut; the pair, who have two children (disturbingly unseen), have created a successful private school.
Stephen, with what appears to be the tacit approval of Anne, who once had her own fling and suggests the same might help spark his writing, begins an affair with Diane Streatfield (Mikaela Izquirdo, the sincerest performance); she’s a lonely widow whose husband died in a plane crash only a year earlier. A family friend, Dr. Alan Kirby (Todd Cerveris, bland), is the raisonneur to whom Stephen explains his motivations: “Fresh kiss, fresh courage.”
The plot thickens when Anne not only feels the green-eyed monster’s presence, but begins an affair of her own, with Stephen getting hoist by his own petard. This inspires director Banks’s finest contribution, when, with the expert lighting assistance of Xavier Pierce, he shows us Stephen’s sleepless night in a montage of silent moments as he waits for Anne to return to their pied à terre.
For further elucidation of the play’s moral compass, we have Stephen’s father, the Rev. Canon Gordon Meredith (Stephen Schnetzer, a late replacement), against whose socially conservative views Stephen argues for his own progressive ones.
The first two acts are set at the Merediths’ country home. Carolyn Mraz has designed a rather homely drawing room environment with clashing colors, ugly wallpaper, and ill-chosen paintings.
And Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes seem an uncomfortable blend of period and not-so period; Stephen, for example, first appears in a tailored brown shirt and broad tie, with high-waisted, pale pants held up by broad suspenders, more like a zoot suiter of the 1940s than a writer-teacher of the early thirties.
But when, in Act Three, as period music chosen by sound designer Jane Shaw plays, we see the sleek Anne, in a black, floor-length sheath, against the bare walls of the pied à terre, the design elements click and, for the first time, a true 1930s impression is conveyed.
Yours Unfaithfully runs two-hours and five minutes, with two intermissions, but the first two acts could easily be joined with only a momentary break. Doing so would go a long way toward easing the tedium that gradually sets in, at least in this production whose casting is unfaithful to the play’s dramatic needs.
Mint Theater at the Beckett Theater
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 18
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).