By Eric Uhlfelder
Are we totally responsible for our lot in life? Or can circumstances be so extreme as to make a mess of the strongest wills? Who is lucky enough to be forgiven; who is fortunate enough to get a second chance? Where does lasting sustenance come from?
These are just several of the many real themes explored in the Mint Theater’s latest production, Conflict, far more than the comedy the British playwright, Miles Malleson, purported it to be.
Resurrected by the Mint’s artistic director Jonathan Mint more than 90 years after Conflict opened in London, this is the US premier of this virtually unknown play. It’s a timely gem, so on point it could’ve been written today.
Conflict is classic theater: terrific character-driven, thought-provoking dialogue and compelling acting, choreographed within a beautiful stage set and seamless direction by Jenn Thompson that builds tension across the two-hour production that flies by. Conflict is pitch-perfect.
The plot centers around a young, well-to-do couple (Lady Dare Bellington played by Jessie Shelton and Major Sir Ronald Clive by Henry Clarke). Ronald is passionate about marrying Lady Dare as well as running for Parliament as a conservative Tory. The Lady just wants to have fun without any commitments except to enjoying her family’s wealth.
But then a stranger comes who causes the threads that bind the couple to fray.
The play is rich in irony and wit, as well as in ideas about wealth and poverty—who is deserving of help, and when should the status quo be questioned, especially if it fails to address the needs of the vast majority of society who are barely getting by.
It’s helpful to keep in mind when the play was written (c. 1925)–just several years after the cataclysm of World War I and the Russian Revolution, which brought the concept of Socialism to the fore. Malleson deftly debates issues of the “Roaring ‘20s,” many of which remain front and center today. And he does this in a sublime way that sustains drama with humor that keeps the story from turning pedantic.
Dialogue works so well because when Malleson makes a clever point, he doesn’t stop with the laugh, but sees it through a step further.
Take when Lady Dare’s father, Lord Bellingdon (Graeme Malcolm), holds to his high ideals when chatting with the liberal Labour party candidate Tim Smith (Jeremy Beck), who was once very down and out.
LORD BELLINGDON: There are some things that a gentleman, wherever he comes from — I’m not talking from any class feeling — won’t do; to beg and to steal are two of them. I should prefer that he’d rather starve.
SMITH: I should like to hear you repeat that after you’d tried starving.
LORD BELLINGDON: Oh, I might fail myself if it came to it. I don’t feel I should. Still, those are my standards. And if I did fail I should be damned ashamed.
SMITH: How do you know that I’m not?
We get a glimpse of where the play is heading when Lady Dare and her father begin discussing politics, probably for the first time in their lives. Until she met the Labour candidate who’s opposing her beau, Dare never had cause to think of such matters.
LADY DARE: Why do people belong to the Labour Party?
LORD BELLINGDON: Envy… you’ve only got to look at the things they propose. A lot of thieves and robbers.
LADY DARE: Don’t you think you may be a little bit prejudiced?
LORD BELLINGDON: I dare say. I hope so. If a man’s got an open mind he can’t keep anything in it.
MRS. TREMAYNE (friend of Lady Dare): If what you say is true, it’s a depressing thought.
LORD BELLINGDON: It may be; I’m not going to let it depress me.
MRS. TREMAYNE: At least a third of our countrymen are thieves and robbers.
LADY DARE: A very unpatriotic thought!
Perhaps the most provocative scene is the brief interlude between the landlady Mrs. Robinson (Amelia White), who runs a modest boarding house and Smith, who is lodged there. Despite the candidate’s polite efforts to inform her about the issues at stake, she sees no difference between the left and right, not trusting the lot of them, suggesting the challenge of getting some poorer folks to discern which politician is more on their side.
The playwright mused a half a century ago, “Sometimes it seems drama is such a passing business. A performance is given, a picture screened then probably forgotten. Only occasionally do you hear that something is remembered, and then you feel you may have added a little to the knowledge about the stuff of life.”
Thanks to Jonathan Bank for remembering Malleson.
Conflict runs through July 21st at The Beckett Theater at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Minttheater.org