How many reasons do you need to see The Charity That Began At Home at the Mint Theater? I can give you three right off the bat: It's the play's New York premiere, it's the first time it has received a professional production anywhere since 1917, and, perhaps most importantly, it's one of the most solidly entertaining plays to hit the boards in months.
But even if you were likely to see another production of St John Hankin's play again soon, this one would still be worthy of your time, thanks to the excellent work of the play's director, Gus Kaikkonen He has directed The Charity That Began At Home with a lithe grace that keeps the comedy and wit sparkling, the action moving, and the laughter always buoyant. Charles F. Morgan's sets and Henry Shaffer's costumes are nice frosting on an already fairly exquisite cake.
Kaikkonen's primary achievement, however, is in making you feel so at home with the characters and the situations. It's as though the audience were invited into the home in which the story takes place, which is appropriate given that the story revolves around Lady Dennison (Kristin Griffith) and her daughter Margery (Harmony Schuttler) inviting people into their home. As new adherents of the Church of Humanity, they believe it's only proper to bring unpopular or difficult people in to help them live a better life. The organization's founder, Basil Hylton (Benjamin Howes) has had a particularly profound impact on Margery, helping her generous soul finally find the outlet it needs.
It's not until the arrival of Lady Dennison's down-to-earth sister-in-law Emily (Becky London) that the effects of their "kindnesses" are felt, however. The quiet and surly butler Soames (Troy Schremmer), the coarse Mrs. Horrocks (Michele Tauber), the stern German teacher Mrs. Triggs (Alice White), and the charmingly seductive Hugh Verreker (Karl Kenzler) all must leave their marks - with varying degrees of permanence - on the family. Hankin sees to it that both the audience and the characters learn something about responsibility and what true kindness is.
The show has been expertly cast, with no weak links to be found among the twelve actors. Griffith, Schuttler, and London are particularly good, but the undeniable standout is Lee Moore. His character, General Bonsor, tells interminably boring stories to the characters in the play, filled with an uncountable number of dates and names, tangents, and digressions, but Moore can't make any of it boring to us - his monotonic earnest delivery is intensely right on. His appearance in the first act is so fall-on-the-floor funny, and sustained for such an impossibly long period of time, it's a race to see whether you'll die of laughter or just bust a gut.
Hankin and Kaikkonen seem to have collaborated on what must be a near ideal production of this play, highlighting all the reasons we should feel pity - and animosity - toward the characters, identifying with them even as we are repelled by their antics. Kaikkonnen meets Hankin's challenge with such honesty that, even if nothing quite matches Moore's hilarious speeches, nothing else feels like a letdown; that could happen all too easily in a story primarily about the joys and dangers of morality, honesty, and obligation.
Margery and her mother struggle, as does everyone, with doing the right things in their lives. Those choices aren't always easy, but fortunately, serious New York theatregoers have it much easier. The right thing for them to do is to take advantage of this most likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and go see The Charity That Began At Home right away.
Mint Theater Company