Theater Review: Noel Coward’s The Rat Trap

-By Eric Uhlfelder

It’s not hard to figure out why a play about marriage earned the title, The Rat Trap.

For those who aren’t sure, the answer comes midway during the Mint Theater’s production of this rarely seen Noel Coward play. Not long after rhapsodizing about marriage, a young wife realizes, “We’re like two rats in a trap.”

A rather harsh thought for newlyweds, both of whom are intelligent, talented writers. How the couple got to that state is what the play’s about.

There’s often wonderful wit and pleasure in watching a Noel Coward play. And his first foray into theater, written when he was just 18, is no exception. Addressing the contrasting de-mands of marriage and creativity was hardly breaking new ground. Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde had already treated this matter quite well.

Coward imbues the play with unexpected rawness. It’s evident throughout, especially at the end, when the wife exclaims: “Oh, God! Why aren’t we ordinary normal people without these beastly analytical minds? I’d willingly give up every particle of brain, intellect and talent if only I could recapture the old longing for you — I hate being able to pry about and criticize — I want not to know anything — just to love you, but I can’t — I can’t, and now — now I feel so alone — and so dreadfully frightened.”

This production continues artistic director Jonathan Bank’s hunt for fine, lost plays. Though first produced in London nearly a century ago, this production is the play’s US premiere. And while the characters and dialogue are clearly from another era, the play’s themes are timeless  — the essence of The Mint.

Sheila (Sarin Monae West) and Keld ( James Evans) are the couple at the center of the storm. Sheila’s roommate, the very beautiful and once divorced Olive (Elisabeth Gray), shares her professional concerns of what may lie ahead: “You’re going to be great, if you work; Keld can never be great.” And therein lies the trap that will lead Sheila, Olive fears, to give way to Keld at her own expense. “My theory,” explains Olive, “is when two brilliant egoists marry, unless one of them is prepared to sacrifice certain things, there is bound to be trouble.”

Coward ensures this by having rendered Keld a conceited cad. A more complex male figure would’ve made for a richer, more compelling story.

Olive’s concerns are echoed by a zany, Bohemian couple. Edmund (Ramzi Khalaf ) and Naomi (Heloise Lowenthal) insist marriage is a sure way to zap vitality out of a relationship — another Shavian notion. An obsequious spinster maid, Burrage (Cynthia Mace), says from what she has seen, matri-mony is not a very fine thing.

The performances are all first-rate, from Elizabeth Gray’s cautionary eloquence to Ramzi Khalaf ’s screwball free spirit. But it’s Sarin’s Monae West’s rendering of Sheila that propels the show.

Written after Coward was an established playwright, a critic in the Illustrated London News wrote, The Rat Trap “has all the qualities that are more forcibly apparent in Coward’s later work … It is both entertaining and amusing; it is unpretentious, and yet, under its simple surface, there is a vision, an understanding of life, which is truly astounding, (especially) for such a youthful author.”

The Rat Trap runs at New York City Center on Stage II through December 11th.  See Minttheater.org

Photo: Elisabeth Gray (Olive) and Sarin Monae West (Sheila) Photo Credit: Todd Cerveris

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