Open marriage, trust, and fidelity are the substance of the humorous and ironic Yours Unfaithfully by Miles Malleson, currently being revived at the Beckett Theatre by he Mint Theater Company. Exceptionally well directed by Jonathan Bank, Yours Unfaithfully investigates the themes of fidelity within marriage, the marriage bond, open marriage, spousal loyalty, trust, personal definitions and conceptions of a fulfilling sexual relationship, identity, sexual freedom, and the necessity of avoiding hypocritical double standards in relationships.
Malleson’s delicious, cryptic work was light years ahead of its time (1933) and this sumptuously crafted production in style, set, costume, lighting design, staging, and original music and sound is a treasure. Once again the Mint has outdone itself in re-introducing a forgotten playwright and an obscure play whose notions are completely 21st-century, though in fact socially our norms have not caught up to Malleson’s philosophical constructs as aptly bandied about by his intensely witty characters.
The plot careens to its highpoint at the conclusion, delivered organically through deepening revelations of character. In the first act we meet a middle class couple, Stephen Meredith (Max von Essen’s enthusiasm and guilelessness gradually deepens toward rueful self-revelation and desperation) and Anne Meredith (Elisabeth Gray’s growing self-awareness toward empowerment and established identity is thrilling). They appear to be happily married despite Stephen’s inability to overcome an entrenched conflict with his father/padre (Stephen Schnetzer in a firm, measured portrayal).
At the outset the couple are entertaining two individuals whom Malleson uses as foils, confidantes, and spurs. The couple reveal their secrets and confess their conundrums to family friend Diana Streatfield (a lovely and complicated performance by Mikaela Izquierdo) and Dr. Alan Kirby (Todd Cerveris is convincing as the counselor/guide whose humor breaks out in spite of himself).
As the play progresses, we discover that Anne would do anything to keep Stephen enthralled with her and enthusiastic about life so he can continue his successful writing career. She tells him lightheartedly that she wishes he would have adventures to inspire him. When Stephen introduces the idea of having a sexual relationship with Diana, Anne is hoisted on her own petard. To save face and to be generous and loving, in a moment of hope, weakness and fear, she encourages Stephen’s relationship with Diana, a lonely widow.
We discover through Anne’s self-discovery that she has opened up their marriage on the one hand to restore Stephen’s passion for life and on the other because she prefers not to be cast as the oppressive wife who provokes Stephen to a secret affair she is not a party to. In this way Stephen will be her confidante and she his; they will remain close as he discloses the progress of his sexual relationship with their mutual friend.
Malleson challenges the audience to advance with him toward the cliff of high-risk open infidelity, then pushes us into the abyss. The result is humorous if not perplexing, for we must confront our own dispositions against middle class double standards and the hypocrisy of keeping one’s affairs discrete from one’s spouse. Malleson pokes us with humor and we squirm, shocked, at Anne’s nonchalance as she gives her blessing to Stephen and Anne’s intimacy with a kiss and an intimate caress of the forehead. Elisabeth as Anne in her bright, cheerful, unaffected demeanor convinces us that she wants nothing but Stephen’s happiness and will sacrifice the sanctity of their marriage bond to achieve it.
For this Stephen is (humorously) grateful and becomes more loving and joyful around her. But is this open marriage arrangement sustainable? And has each party counted the cost of the change that will inevitably occur?
In the subsequent acts the conflicts intensify and the themes become pronounced. Anne reveals to Dr. Kirby that she is in agony and jealous despite her initial feeling that she should repress all her ungenerous emotions. When in Act II Stephen tells her he is taking Diana to Vienna, Anne finally admits she is desolate. Nevertheless, she again represses her misery and with her blessings encourages Stephen, who offers to cancel the trip, to enjoy himself for a two-day weekend in Paris. Again, he awards her with protestations of increased love.
Malleson’s characterization of Anne is profound, and Elisabeth Gray modifies Anne’s growing self-awareness into strength and empowerment that redeems her to herself in Act III. Meanwhile, Stephen, completely self-absorbed in his own happiness, is so disingenuous and dismissive of Anne’s misery, he believes her retort to him that he must go because she doesn’t want him to resent her.
The trip to Paris is the determining event that transforms their marriage and relationship. Both are different after he returns; both have made decisions from which there is no turning back. Indeed, both had underestimated the impact and meaning of the Parisian getaway.
Act III is gorgeous; Malleson’s phrasing and Anne’s commentary about her newfound goals, her identity, and her change of focus are precursors to feminism and current principles. Malleson was very much aware of women’s hearts and minds at a time when most men, of whom Stephen is representative, were probably oblivious.
By the conclusion the irony deepens. There is a reversal of roles; Anne is the freewheeling, liberated individual. Stephen has “fallen in love with Anne all over again.” He intends to return to the “nest” only to discover that the bird who has newfound wings can fly off whenever she pleases. The play instructs us that marriage bonds are a sacrifice, as is freedom from them. Through Anne, he suggests that once women establish an independent identity and empower themselves, they most probably will prefer that freedom to a repressed non-identity as someone’s invisible wife.
Director Banks is meticulous about expressing the characters through costuming, lighting and set design. Anne’s growing freedoms contrasted with Diana’s develop strikingly; in Act I Anne’s dress is conservative, Diana’s exposed. By Act III we see Anne coming out of the shower in a green towel, an expression of freeing herself from everything that has bound her in marriage, primarily her own conceptions of the relationship. For his part Stephen can only hope to woo Anne back with extraordinary expressions of love that are sincere and heartfelt; but it is probably too late, Malleson suggests, with Anne’s humorous, distilled and striking final comment.
Yours Unfaithfully is a marvelous production exquisite in its dramatic spectacle and in the cast’s acute, humorous performances. This is a must-see for its subtleties of wit and humor, its sometimes brilliant dialogue and turns of phrase, its fine recreation of setting, and its intriguing modern character portrayals. It will be at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row until 18 February.