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Yours Unfaithfully

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - January 26, 2017

Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray
Photo by Richard Termine

It's not surprising that Yours Unfaithfully, Miles Malleson's 1933 play about a couple's attempt to successfully negotiate the terrain of what we would now call an "open marriage," was not produced in London at the time it was written. That same year, Noël Coward's rather similarly themed Design for Living was seen first on Broadway, having skipped London out of concern that its subject matter would not pass muster with the official censor there. (The New York theater has never had an official censor, but given the current political climate, who knows what the future may bring . . .)

No, what's very surprising about Yours Unfaithfully is that this beautifully well written, thoughtful, intelligent play did not make it to the stage in London, on Broadway, in Tasmania, or anywhere else for eight decades after its composition and publication, and is only now receiving its extremely belated world premiere production Off Broadway, courtesy of the priceless Mint Theater Company.

As the brief description in the opening line of this review indicates, the play is bracingly modern in its content and focus. Malleson begins with a scene set in the country home of the attractive, youngish couple Stephen and Anne Meredith—expertly acted in the Mint production by Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray—as they play cordial host and hostess to two friends, Dr. Alan Kirby (Todd Cerveris) and the young widow Diana Streatfield (Mikaela Izquierdo). At one point when Stephen and Anne are alone together, he tells her, "I simply don't want anyone else but you." Still, she senses that he's not completely happy, and she comes up with the suggestion that an affair with Diana might be the perfect cure for what ails him. Though initially reluctant to do so, Stephen eventually takes the suggestion.

Two of the most interesting facets of Yours Unfaithfully are its back story and the ways in which the characters' various personalities and changing perspectives play off each other. SPOILERS AHEAD: Although Stephen falls enthusiastically into his affair with Diana, he finds himself quite upset and jealous when Anne spends a night with a fellow she meets at a party in London. A wordless sequence representing Stephen's sleepless vigil as he waits for Anne to return to their room is movingly acted by von Essen and brilliantly executed with the help of Xavier Pierce's lighting and Jane Shaw's sound and original music.

All of the above might seem to fit neatly into the mold of the double standard so often applied to the extramarital affairs of men and women, but the situation is complicated by the info that Anne had had her own extra-marital dalliance some years before the Stephen-Diana affair, and further complicated when we learn with whom she dallied. Hint: It was certainly not Stephen's father, the Reverend Canon Gordon Meredith (Stephen Schnetzer), who in addition to being a clergyman is Vice President of the Social Purity League.

There is an oddity, one might say flaw, in the text of the play. We're told that Stephen and Anne have two young children, but this significant fact is mentioned only once or twice, briefly and in passing. Obviously, the potential ramifications of an open marriage change greatly when children are in the picture, so it's puzzling that Malleson eschewed any discussion of how they might be affected.

There is also an oddity, one might say flaw, in the overall typically superb Mint Theater presentation of Yours Unfaithfully. Although the company is known for the fine dialect work of its actors in plays from the U.K., here we have the cast speaking in what could barely even be classified as mid-Atlantic accents. This isn't an issue in terms of the characters or plot points being specifically British, because for the most part they aren't; but many of the references are, not to mention the style, syntax, vocabulary, and expressions of the dialogue, so the absence of full-on Brit accents was a disappointment to this audience member.

Otherwise, this production at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row is eminently satisfying in terms of Jonathan Bank's direction, Carolyn Mraz's lovely sets (get a load of the scene change from Stephen and Anne's country home to their room in London), Hunter Kaczorowski's gorgeous costumes, John Jared Janas's wonderfully period-accurate hair, wig, and makeup design, and the aforementioned lighting and sound/original music.

All of the casting and performances are spot on with the exception of Schnetzer, who seems a little too young, too easygoing, and yes, way too American for the role of Stephen's rigid Brit clergy pater. But wait: Schnetzer was a very-late-in-rehearsals replacement for an another actor, so major allowances should be made for his not fitting the role to a T, and he should be applauded for performing with thorough professionalism and without any obvious moments of unsurety.

In the final moments of Yours Unfaithfully, Stephen asks, "Anne, this is a happy ending, isn't it?" You'll have to see the play to find out what he means and how she replies, and to decide if you agree. Bravo to the Mint for this high-quality first airing of a sensitive, incisive, ahead-of-its-time play that otherwise might never have been excavated.

Yours Unfaithfully
Through February 18
Beckett Theatre at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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