All of Harley Granville-Barker’s great Edwardian plays are about moral corruption, which accounts for the run of timely revivals. In 1999, the excellent Mint Theater Company staged Barker’s drama about financial greed and hypocrisy, The Voysey Inheritance—the same play that David Mamet recently adapted. Now, in the first New York revival since 1921, the Mint has boldly staged Barker’s superior The Madras House.
Barker—whose theatrical ideals and theories paved the way for the foundation of England’s National Theatre—was a Shavian (he produced and directed many G.B. Shaw plays at the original Royal Court Theatre and was a leading actor in them). Shaw’s influence on The Madras House (1909) is clear, particularly in its witty take on stifling social conventions and the role of those tantalizing, mysterious things, women. But the play in turn influenced Shaw, inspiring him to write a companion piece, Misalliance (1910). And what a weird, intelligent, overstuffed comedy with a conscience Madras House turns out to be!
It’s essentially about shopping (and the wage slaves who manufacture the goods). This is the first morally serious play I’ve seen to include a fashion show. The idealistic zealot and sexual cold fish, Philip Madras, is selling the family fashion house and drapery business to an American millionaire. Philip disapproves of haute couture for exploiting women, and resents his perplexed wife simply for being there. He also rejects his inheritance as a symbolic gesture toward a new, spiritual England.
In any other play, Philip would be declared legally insane. Barker describes him in his notes as a man “capable of that least English of dispositions—intellectual passion.” Among others in the crowded cast, there’s Philip’s grieving mother and bumbling, privileged uncle, who can’t keep count of his six unmarried children. There’s a pregnant worker—a proto-feminist—who has to be sacked. (Who can her lover be?) And there’s Philip’s philandering father, Constantine, a Mohammedan convert who abandoned his wife and England to live with various concubines in the Middle East.
Madras House doesn’t have a plot as such. Barker wrote “discussion plays,” and his characters do little else but talk—and talk. (Barker’s modern heir is Tom Stoppard in history-of- Russia mode.) “The things you think when you start to think,” announces Uncle Henry about the irresistibility of women, and Barker gives us a great deal more to think about in his four neatly balanced acts: England and its stifling Puritanism, the hypocrisy of family values, the know-how of American entrepreneurship, the purpose of art and culture, the commercial exploitation of workers, spiritual revolution versus the opiate of shopping. On marketing, women and fashion, Barker was ahead of his time.
The moral of Madras House appears to be that relationships between the sexes are hopeless. (For good measure, our prim hero Philip dislikes men and women, and his wife doesn’t care much for men.) Or we can put it another way: How, the play asks earnestly, can we sublimate all the sexual energy we waste on one another, and so create the time to cure the evils of the world? And if you know the answer to that, tell Harley Granville-Barker.
The Madras House creaks a bit at times—by Jove it does! (And being a woman is jolly difficult!) Though the overlong text has been cut, it’s still a three-hour evening (and Barker repeats himself). But Gus Kaikkonen’s production on the Mint’s small stage is a welcome one and, for the most, part well acted. I would have preferred George Morfogen’s Constantine to be less serene, and possibly more flamboyantly wolfish. Thomas Hammond’s messianic, sexually aloof Philip is exactly right. I was so struck by the unknown actress in the supporting role of Emma, one of the Huxtable daughters, that I looked her up in the Playbill. Allison McLemore, a recent college grad, is making an enchanting New York debut, and surely has wonderful things ahead of her.
A WORD OR TWO IN FAVOR OF THE ART of silliness. It takes a genial kind of talent to be truly silly, and I won’t hear a word against Christopher Durang anyway. In an unusual program note, Mr. Durang writes of Adrift in Macao, his affectionate musical spoof of film noir at the 59East59 Street Theaters, that if Graham Greene could distinguish between his psychological novels and the minor mysteries he termed “entertainments,’’ Mr. Durang would like to make the same distinction in his own work. And why not? He explains that his more serious satires are written in frustration to point out the stupidities of life that upset him, whereas a parody springs from fondness for the subject. A “friendly-silly” piece like Adrift in Macao is written in a good mood.
Or, as his blond dame Lureena, fresh off the boat in a slinky satin dress, puts it: “I been around.” It’s true that film noir send-ups aren’t new. (Among two thousand of them, one thinks of Charles Busch’s Shanghai Moon or the Cy Coleman/Larry Gelbart City of Angels.) But only Mr. Durang would dare to invent a tough-talking nightclub owner named Rick Shaw. Or a “very scrutable” Chinese manservant who’s named Tempura because he’s been “battered by life.”
One enjoys groaning happily, and there’s much opportunity here. “I may be beautiful and even oversexed,” Lureena announces, “but business is business and never the twain shall meet.”
“Which twain?” Rick asks.
“The gwavy twain,” replies smoky Lureena.
The moral of Adrift in Macao might not be as gwave as that of The Madras House, but minor Christopher Durang is far, far better than no Durang at all. Directed by Sheryl Kaller, with a small, talented cast, the show has a very catchy score by Peter Melnick. At the end, we all get to sing along merrily to the sincerely awful “Ticky Ticky Tock,” led by Billy Holliday Wong.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.