Cynthia Mace and Ellen Adair in ‘Strange Birth.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Ever since 2009, Jonathan Bank, artistic director of the Mint Theater Company, has had a passion for the plays of Irish playwright Teresa Deevy (1894-1963). Deevy’s plays saw a flurry of productions at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in the early 1930s, after which her theatre work dried up and she wrote for radio. The Mint, whose reputation rests on its revivals of worthy “lost or forgotten” plays, has previously produced three Deevy plays.
Four of her one-acts, found by Bank in a suitcase under a bed in Deevy’s family home, make up this two-hour program titled The Suitcase Under the Bed, also directed by Bank. Although Deevy’s career has a definite historical interest—deaf female playwrights are rare—what I’ve seen of her plays thus far (beginning with Katie Roche in 2013) leaves me unconvinced of their artistry as opposed to historic significance.
Each Suitcase play treats the subject of marriage, or the wish to be married. Three are spoken with Irish brogues and one with upper-class British accents; each has a mildly surprising conclusion bordering on the anticlimactic. Those old dramatic devices known as letters play a big role in two plays. The characters range from the upper class to working class, and the general tone is lightly comic.
The slightest, yet, in some ways most satisfactory, is the first play, “Strange Birth,” previously performed only on the radio in 1948. It’s set in the hallway of a boarding house, where, in addition to a couple of sourpuss residents, we meet Mrs. Taylor (Cynthia Mace), the landlady; Sara Meade (Ellan Adair), a maid; and Bill (Aidan Redmond), a mailman.
Framing the action is the landlady’s delight to learn that her son is coming; within that construct, Deevy focuses on Bill’s charming attempt to get Sara to marry him and her unexpected response. “Strange Birth” is a pleasantly articulated sketch given several appealing performances.
A pale blue curtain descends between the one-acts and actress Sarah Nicole Deaver comes out to stand before an old-fashioned microphone and deliver “A Spiritual Canticle,” a poem by Spanish mystic and Catholic saint St. John of the Cross. Its words have a spiritual relevance for the next play, “In the Cellar of My Friend,” written in 1946, but they go by too quickly for us to make the assessment.
The play is set in the breakfast room of barrister Tom Keane (Colin Ryan). Deaver plays Belle Dobbyn, the pretty center of a parent-son romantic conflict in which the poor girl, in love with the son, Barney (A.J. Shively), is courted by the father, Tom. Neither Bank’s direction nor the actors’ efforts can prevent the plot’s development from seeming clumsy, the characters from being unconvincing, or the surprise resolution—based on a decision of Barney’s—believable. It’s not hard to understand why the play was never previously produced.
“Holiday House,” is another premiere, the Abbey having reneged on its production in 1939. It’s a mild drawing-room comedy à la Noël Coward, taking place in a summer home where a well-to-do mother (Mace) has created an uncomfortable situation by inviting her son, Derek (Ryan) and his wife, Jil (Gina Costigan), along with Derek’s brother Neil (Redmond) and his wife Doris, to spend a month. The source of the discomfort is Derek and Doris’s once having been engaged and Doris’s anger at Jil for subsequently having stolen Derek. Whatever comic or dramatic potential is present fails to ignite. The play ends almost as soon as we grasp the setup.
After yet another blue curtain interlude, this time with a reading of Padraic Colum’s “A Drover,” we view The King of Spain’s Daughter, featuring two road laborers at their work site, the rough codger Peter (Redmond) and the younger Jim (Shively), on a day when a wedding has the town agog. Jim’s in love with Peter’s promiscuous, fantasizing, hellion of a daughter, Annie (Deaver), who must decide whether to marry him—she has reasons to object—or be forced by her dad to sign up for five years of toil at a local factory. In its depiction of a free soul entrapped by a narrow world, this is perhaps the most serious of the evening’s plays although the playwright called it a “comedy.”
Faced with the problem of providing four distinctive sets, designer Vicki R. Davis leans too heavily on literal backgrounds rather than something more elegantly imaginative, and quicker to shift. The single permanent element is an unattractive horizontal slash overhead that looks more like discarded aluminum foil than a cloud-streaked sky.
Perhaps the finest takeaway is the versatility of the seven actors playing from two to four widely varying roles each, and doing so with convincing accents. Andrea Varga’s character-defining period clothes and a variety of excellent wigs (uncredited) are valuable adjuncts to their work. Redmond’s authoritative presence, Mace’s matronly variety, and Deaver’s ingénue ingenuity each deserve particular attention.
Hopefully, if the Mint continues its Deevy Project, the other plays in Deevy’s suitcase will reveal what’s missing in these decidedly minor ones.
The Suitcase Under the Bed
Mint Theater Company
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 30
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, 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).