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The Rat Trap

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - November 21, 2022

Sarin Monae West and James Evans
Photo by Todd Cerveris
Over the years, the Mint Theater Company has dusted off and revived many obscure plays of the past that have interesting back stories, but the facts behind the gestation and history of Noël Coward's The Rat Trap are unusually fascinating and arguably as dramatic as the work itself.

To begin with, Coward wrote the play when he was 18, which is quite young even for a budding genius–especially in this case, where the subject matter is not exactly what one might think a teenager would have the desire, the life experience, or the emotional maturity to tackle. The Rat Trap centers around a newlywed couple of writers, novelist Sheila Brandreth and playwright Keld Maxwell, both of whom have already experienced the flush of early success. Although the pair vow to continue to support each other in their respective careers, one of their writer friends, Olive Lloyd-Kennedy, warns Sheila not long before their marriage that such unions never work out as planned, and that one of them is very likely to end up playing second fiddle to the other. As we follow Sheila and Keld through the first two years of their marriage, we see Olive's prediction come sadly true–and, given that The Rat Trap is set in England in the early part of the 20th century, it probably goes without saying which half of the couple ends up second fiddling.

Back to the back story, as detailed in the show's program. A tryout production of this play was planned for 1923 but was canceled due to the death of the actress Meggie Albanesi, who had been tapped to play Sheila, presumably opposite Coward as Keld. While the press attributed her death to various other causes, the truth was that Albanesi succumbed to peritonitis following a botched abortion. As it turned out, The Rat Trap wasn't produced until 1926 for only a two-week run, and not in the West End. Its first revival came 80 years later at the Finborough in London, and the Mint staging marks the play's American premiere.

Interestingly, although Coward in his introduction to the published script of the play dismissed it as an "early work" whose time had already passed, he rated it more positively in his 1937 autobiography "Present Indicative" as "My first really serious attempt at psychological conflict... When I had finished it, I felt, for the first time with genuine conviction, that I could really write plays." The Mint production allows us the opportunity to judge the quality of the writing for ourselves, and in this reviewer's opinion, it demonstrates both the nascent, protean talents of the author and the inexperience of one so young.

For example, many dramatugs might consider it a huge no-no that, in the very first scene of this play, one of the two main characters' friends predicts more or less exactly what's going to happen to them. On the other hand, the gripping Act II confrontation between Sheila and Keld is written with all the mastery of a great playwright seemingly working at the height of his powers, even at 18. Then again, what happens in Act III in terms of Sheila's accommodations to save her marriage strains credibility to the breaking point if not beyond–but then again, what happens in Act IV seems entirely, sadly true to the characters, the situation, and the period.

The excellent Mint staging of The Rat Trap, presented at New York City Center Stage II with one intermission between Acts II and III, smooths over the inconsistent quality of the writing and accents the play's considerable strengths. Director Alexander Lass has a firm grip on the required style of the piece and is blessed with a superb company of actors headed by Sarin Monae West as Sheila and James Evans as Keld. The chemistry between these two in Act I is so strong and palpable that it's all the more devastating when their happiness begins to unravel to the point where Keld becomes physically violent toward Sheila, a shocking development that understandably draws gasps from the audience. And the intelligence of both performances, West's in particular, is keen enough to clearly communicate subtext that's vital in helping us understand these complex characters.

Also highly laudable is the work of Elisabeth Gray as the prescient Olive; Heloise Lowenthal and Ramzi Khalaf as two others in Keld and Sheila's artsy circle of friends; Claire Saunders as Ruby Raymond, an actress who plays a supporting but pivotal role in the central couple's marriage troubles; and Cynthia Mace as a maid who figures rather more prominently in the action here than does, for example, her counterpart in Coward's Private Lives.

As this is a Mint Theater Company effort, it probably goes without saying that the design elements (sets by Vicki R. Davis, costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski, lighting by Christian DeAngelis) and the accent work (guided by Amy Stoller) are all exemplary. At intermission, I overheard director Lass asking some of his Brit friends in the audience if the accents "passed muster," and though I'll leave that judgment to them for obvious reasons, my answer would be "Yes, indeed!"

To cover the first scene change in this production, Heloise Lowenthal and Ramzi Khalaf charmingly perform an interpolated song, the wonderfully funny and sophisticated "Forbidden Fruit," which Coward wrote when he was–wait for it–16 years old. Hearing this delightful ditty in the context of a flawed but highly compelling play written only two years later, even agnostics like this reviewer might almost feel that, when it comes to extraordinary talent becoming evident at a tender age, some people really are touched by God.

The Rat Trap
Through December 10, 2022
Mint Theater Company
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th St (between 6th & 7th)
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