David Mamet, where art thou?
If you've seen the Atlantic Theater Company's production of Harley Granville-Barker's The Voysey Inheritance this season, you're well aware of Mamet's gift for spiking dusty plays with intoxicating contemporary energy. If Mamet's work there sometimes masks the depths of Granville-Barker's original intent rather than expose them, he nonetheless effected an affecting transformation. To watch the Mint Theater Company's new mounting of Granville-Barker's slightly later play, The Madras House, is to intimately understand what Mamet accomplished with Voysey - and to suspect he remade the wrong play.
As directed by Gus Kaikonnen, the Mint's stately but staid take on Granville-Barker's routing of British priorities at the turn of the 20th century does not exactly inspire the imagination. This production tickles the taste buds with four distinct flavors of endless speechifying, on a variety of stultifying subjects that seem far less relevant to modern life than Voysey's hard-line look at familial responsibility combating moral insecurity. As The Madras House's topics are, if anything, more universal, this is puzzling - though knowing there's something worthwhile buried underneath the dross doesn't make the broad, bloated evening easier to sit through.
Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, fashion and politics. All of these duos, in their convoluted complexity, play major roles in this idea-heavy glimpse behind the gilded walls of the titular London fashion house and the homes of those who run it. Each of the play's four acts affords us a different vantage point in examining how fairness in business and fairness in marriage are only occasionally the same thing, from within the well-appointed home of one of the Madras House's directors, to the solicitor's office where matters of difficulty for the house's live-in employees are resolved, to the establishment itself where its directors guide the course of women's apparel and personal discourse alike, and finally to the disintegrating home of the firm's youngest director, Philip Madras, around whom most of the play revolves.
Philip (a stony Thomas Hammond) is at the forefront of the Madras House's uncertain future, desiring both a career and a home life, despite the not-insignificant fact that he understands neither business nor women. With Philip's father, Constantine (George Morfogen), planning to sell the firm to an American investor, and Philip's wife Jessica (Lisa Bostnar) as overeager as she is self-concerned, Philip is left alone and adrift as he tries to determine what the right things are and who they're right for. (That the questions are not always related is one of the most important lessons Philip learns.)
But while Philip's experiences along the way include watching Constantine, a converted "Mohammaden" (one imagines we'd say "Muslim" today), ditch his mother (Roberta Maxwell) for a new life in the Middle East, and refereeing an act-long cat-and-mouse game between a Madras working girl and the married couple she comes between, there's almost no action in the play. Granville-Barker pulled taut the rope linking personal and professional obligations in Voysey, giving the audience cause to fear - and care - whether its lead would triumph over deep-seated evil, succumb to it, or be forced into a stalemate. It's an understatement to say that Philip's most perplexing dilemma, whether he should abandon the world of women's dresses for the realm of politics, is substantially less engrossing.
If Kaikkonen hasn't instilled in the play any sense of tension, pacing, or shape, he's at least granted it a gorgeous physical production: With grand sets (by Charles Morgan) and exquisite costumes (from Clint Ramos), which take in the full range of upper-crust Georgian elegance and even a third-act haute couture fashion show, this is one of the most opulent Mint outings in years. But the inherent stodginess of the story (which thinks long-windedness is its own reward) and practically all the performances (the exceptions are a geyser-furious Maxwell, whose confrontation with Morfogen in the final act provides the show's only hint of heat, and a blithe and buxom Bostnar) makes it hard enough to keep your eyes open, let alone focused on the gorgeous appointments.
The chief sleep-inducer is the legality-meets-morality second act, which probably anchored the play's social consciousness 97 years ago: Whether put-upon worker Marion Yates (Mary Bacon) is really guilty of flirting or dallying with the secretly married William (Kraig Swartz) to the chagrin of his wife (Angela Reed) is perhaps the play's most important reflection on how the games men and women play impact capitalistic progress. But it's so drawn out that it's best taken as an indictment of the employment system that subjugated London women of the period and that Philip, on some level, wants to propagate. It might have been electric then, but today it feels like little more than an injection of Dickensian toxicity into a play without enough weight to stand on its own two feet.
The Madras House
Photo 1 - Thomas Hammond and Lisa Bostnar