By Samuel L. Leiter
By 1922, British writer A.A. Milne (1882-1956), soon to become world-famous for his Winnie the Pooh children’s stories, was already recognized as a promising, prolific playwright for adults. Between 1920 and 1922 Broadway saw four of his comedies of British manners, including The Truth about Blayds and Mr. Pim Passes By. Both were revived in 2004 by the Mint Theater Company, dedicated to “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten.”
That noble purpose explains the Mint’s exhumation of Milne’s The Lucky One, which certainly has been “lost or forgotten”; whether it’s “worthwhile” is debatable. Written in 1917 but unable to land a London showing, this dramedy about sibling rivalry premiered under the banner of New York’s then rising Theatre Guild. It opened on November 20, 1922, at the now vanished Garrick Theatre. The production, which had only 40 showings, was staged by famed Russian director Theodore Komisarjevsky, making his American debut.
Arthur Hornblow in Theatre Magazine thought that “The piece is a job-lot of scene wrenched out of a Milne note-book and fastened together without much thought to the general picture.” The general opinion was that the play was middling and its weaknesses made worse by a miscast production.
With a few exceptions, the casting of the Mint’s production, efficiently directed by Jesse Marchese, is likewise problematic, as are the set and costumes. The three-act play, clumsy, old-fashioned, and dotted with unanswered plot questions, nevertheless contains enough lively dialogue and dramatic confrontations to make its two hours pass by entertainingly enough. It even contains a line concerning the sharing of secrets with a foreign power that will tickle your topical funnybone. Otherwise, Milne’s play can’t be described as an unfairly overlooked treasure.
Milne’s title points to Gerald, a Foreign Service officer and the younger brother of Bob (Ari Brand). Gerald’s the one everyone loves for his good looks, his sportsman’s abilities, his exceeding charm, and his superior intelligence. The unlucky sibling is “poor old Bob,” as others keep referring to him because he pales in the light of his brother’s accomplishments. Bob’s in love with the beautiful Pamela Carey (Paton Ashbrook); guess who her fiancé is.
Bob’s seething jealousy sits on him like a badly tailored suit; it becomes even more unflattering when the self-pitying fellow, a complete mismatch for his business career in the City (London’s Wall Street), goes to jail for three months after being implicated in his partner’s shady dealing. He continues to prate about his need for Pamela, who’s written in a way suggesting that maybe she really doesn’t love Gerald after all. At the end the brothers engage in a sharply honed climactic dialogue; when it’s over, you can take your pick as to which is the lucky brother.
Surrounding the fraternal squabbles are a familiar lot of drawing-room stereotypes. Best is veteran Cynthia Harris as the wise, aged great-aunt, Miss Farringdon, who has her doubts about Gerald. Paton Ashbrook is warmly affectionate as Pamela, although—it’s the script that’s to blame—she never convinced me such an intelligent woman would fall for either of the brothers.
Wynn Harmon and Deanne Lorette as the doting parents, Sir James and Lady Farringdon, are suitably obtuse, while Michael Frederic is believably advisory as the family’s barrister friend, Henry Wentworth. In the comic relief roles of young, golf-obsessed Thomas Todd and his girlfriend Letty Herbert, Andrew Fallaize and Mia Hutchinson are stymied by their unfunny lines and business, but Peggy J. Scott is fine as Mason, a faithful maidservant.
Least lucky are Robert David Grant and Ari Brand as the Farringdon brothers. It’s hard to reconcile the superior qualities we keep hearing about Gerald with their existence in the person of Grant, whose vaunted charisma seems more like smugness. Poor old Bob, on the other hand, is portrayed as a single note of resentment in search of a maternal breast on which to suckle away his grievances.
Martha Hally’s costumes are attractive enough but those for the women, with their skirts nearly to the ground, seem more like 1917, when the play was written, than 1922, when it was produced. More awkward is Vicki R. Davis’s unit set, which needs to represent a country house in the first and third acts, and a London hotel room in the second.
Davis’s physically impressive design consists of a pair of sweeping staircases, backed by sheer curtains, with open risers and banisters made of conventional steel pipes. A large photo of two kids, presumably the brothers, dominates the upper level. None of it, though, has a period feeling.
Moreover, the only effort made to differentiate the locales is the change of flowers made by a stagehand in the drearily overlong scene-shift; otherwise, it takes some time before you realize the locale has moved from the country to the city.
Regardless of the relative success of The Lucky One, New York is fortunate to have the Mint providing several opportunities each season to evaluate neglected plays like this one. In that sense, we, the audience, are indeed the lucky ones.
The Lucky One
Beckett Theatre/Mint Theater Company
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 25
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).