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Conflict

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - June 21, 2018


Jeremy Beck, Jessie Shelton and Henry Clarke
Photo by Todd Cerveris

Sex, politics, and sex in politics have been rich subjects for theatrical treatment pretty much since day one, and will no doubt continue to be—even if many of us might well lose our lunch at the thought of any such play revolving around the leaders of the current administration of the United States government.

Miles Malleson's 1925 drama Conflict, as seen in the Mint Theater Company's splendid revival at Theatre Row, has a kinship with such works as Aristophanes' ages-old, all-time classic Lysistrata and Beau Willimon's recent misfire The Parisian Woman in that, arguably, the central character of Malleson's play is a woman: Lady Dare Bellingdon. She's the unmarried daughter of a filthy rich Lord, and although her father certainly doesn't know it, Dare is in the midst of an affair with Major Sir Ronald Clive, a staunch conservative who's standing for Parliament with Lord Bellingdon's strong support. If that sounds like a dicey situation, it becomes even more so when Dare's political leanings and romantic affections begin to shift toward one Tom Smith, a social justice warrior who himself is up for election to Parliament as the candidate for the Labour party.

It's intriguing to imagine what the playwright and his characters would think if they could have foreseen what would happen in the U.K. during the Margaret Thatcher era. As it is, Conflict is a fascinating time capsule of British social and political attitudes in the early years of women's suffrage. Malleson himself was actively involved with the Independent Labour Party, but one of the great strengths of the play is that both sides are given persuasive arguments regarding such endless subjects of debate as the wildly unequal distribution of wealth among the populace and what has come to be known as trickle-down economics. Young Lady Dare is deeply affected by Tom Smith's passionate discourse on such matters, yet on the other hand, the very different perspectives of her father and Sir Ronald are cogently expressed in their own words.

Dare is a plum role, and if Jessie Shelton perhaps overdoes the character's affectations in the earlier scenes of the Mint production, she expertly and movingly communicates the raising of the woman's consciousness. Tom Smith first appears as a penurious interloper on Lord Bellingdon's estate, and his character's growth in integrity and confidence is as well portrayed by Jeremy Beck as his physical transformation is astonishing, the latter with great help from costume designer Martha Hally and whoever is responsible for Beck's makeup.

Graeme Malcolm and Henry Clarke are exemplary traditional casting in terms of physical type, speech, and manner as Lord Bellingdon and Sir Ronald, respectively, which makes it all the more interesting for the audience that these characters turn out to be complex human beings rather than cardboard conservative mouthpieces. And in the small but vital role of Mrs. Robinson, the landlady of Smith's lodging house, Amelia White makes a meal of the quietly powerful little scene in which she explains to Smith why people of her class and/or gender might vote against their own self interests or, indeed, not vote at all.

Director Jenn Thompson aids and abets these wonderfully nuanced portrayals. The production values of the Mint's shows have been consistently excellent throughout the company's history, and John McDermott's gorgeously appointed, detailed set design for the "morning room" of Lord Bellingdon's home is impressive even by that high standard.

Conflict is subtitled "a love story." Audience members of a certain political bent will likely find it easy to understand why Dare's affections shift from Clive to Smith, seeing how the latter is given to pronouncements such as: "It's not a question of changing human nature, but of giving human nature a chance . . . It may take another world war before enough people feel this common purpose—I think these really are years of crisis . . . but sooner or later there'll be enough men and women determined to tackle this problem of human affairs perfectly sanely and scientifically. It may be only a few years away, or hundreds, or thousands, but if Mankind is to evolve further, it must be something of that spirit that will inspire him. Mind you, that spirit does exist in the world today, not among enough people, and not among those who have power over their fellows, but upon its spread I believe the fate of humanity depends—not only its ultimate fate, in the centuries ahead, but the immediate future of our children and their children's children. I want to use my life helping to spread it."

Ya gotta love a guy like that.


Conflict
Through July 21
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge


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