In a superb and perfectly realized revival by the Mint Theater Company, Conflict strikes neatly with ironic humor. Throughout, Miles Malleson’s witty, skillful comedy/romance, which premiered in London in 1925, travels with shimmering brilliance. Thanks to the able and astute direction of Jenn Thompson and letter-perfect ensemble, Malleson’s clever twists on class, sex, politics, gender, and social hypocrisy receive a novel exploration. Indeed, the production provides uplifting energy with which to brace against the current manic winds conservative/progressive political cant currently “gracing” our media outlets.
The setting and sets, always sumptuously rendered by the Mint’s adroit artistic team, predominately feature the London home of Lord Bellingdon in the 1920s. Though the gorgeous accoutrements appear “from a stately past time,” the themes and concepts are expressly modern. Indeed, the characters’ troubles, the social issues, the cultural situations timelessly pertain. Malleson’s particular genius assures that though science may advance our lifestyles, human nature’s proclivity toward prejudice stains our evolution. Thus, the reformation of nullifying cultural folkways does not rapidly or smoothly move forward toward the betterment of all. It meanders slowly.
Malleson’s play proceeds quietly then delivers its blows with increasing strides toward a dynamic conclusion. The playwright builds strong relationships between and among the characters. Initially, all appears well with the upper classes. The love relationship between Major Sir Ronald Clive and Lady Dare Bellingdon suits her father, Lord Bellingdon, friend of Clive. However, Lady Dare’s modernism and desire to throw off women’s staid cultural mores hints at an ensuing conflict. For Lady Dare refuses to become engaged to Clive to please her father. In the interactions of these three characters, Malleson layers shards of humor, inner turmoil, and irony. And when the fourth character emerges, the fireworks sizzle.
The conflicts explode when intruder Tom Smith (Jeremy Beck in a terrific, emotionally deep portrayal) crashes the Bellingdon home in the middle of the night. Smith confesses (at the point of Lord Bellingdon’s gun) that he shadowed Major Sir Ronald Clive. (Henry Clarke is spot-on as Clive, the cool, well-meaning gentleman of honor and civility.) Clive, friend of Bellingdon and suitor to his daughter, is just about to leave after a visit when Smith breaks into Bellingdon’s home and surprises them.
Smith insists he broke in to the Bellingdon mansion to see Clive, his former classmate at Cambridge. Thompson superbly directs the intense, suspenseful exchange among Bellingdon, Clive, and Smith. When Clive finally recognizes his desperate classmate, Lord Bellingdon (the straightforward, blustering, authoritarian Graeme Malcolm is an everpresent source of humor) relaxes. And both gentlemen hear out Smith’s desperate tale. It is a story which may be visibly understood in Smith’s threadbare overcoat and shabby, unkempt appearance (kudos to Martha Hally’s costuming).
During this scene, Malleson lays the groundwork for his intrigues. Smith, once of the same upper-class milieu, has fallen on hard times. His father, bankrupted after the Wall Street crash, dies tragically with his wife, leaving Smith orphaned and nearly penniless. Shamefully admitting he resorted to the theft of a pound, this once highbrow Cambridge social gadfly is destitute and without prospects. Grudgingly, and with an admixture of shame and pride, Smith begs for their charity. Eventually, both men give it to Smith. Malleson makes a point of underscoring Clive’s and Bellingdon’s humanity and kindness. For we discover later that each man lied to the other about his “small donation” to Smith. Each gave more than he stated. Their generosity saves Smith’s life, and ironically allows Smith to trouble them.
An important feature of the structure and conflict rises toward the end of the scene. Before they bestow their charity, Smith chides Bellingdon for his snobbish attitude of self-satisfied privilege. Because of Smith’s learning curve into poverty and exploration of socialism, he feels obliged to excoriate Bellingdon’s conservative Toryism. Thus, he humorously lays low Bellingdon’s upper-class presumptions about the teaming masses’ inferiority and upper-class superiority. As Smith points out the spuriousness of Bellingdon’s arguments, he presses a theme Malleson wishes to emphasize: The unforgiving, inequitable social conditions and the archaic class system make little functional sense. In fact they actually harm the social order and prevent progress.
The contrasting philosophies of socialism and conservatism come to the fore when we learn that Clive plans to run for office as a conservative. Smith, restored by Clive’s and Bellingdon’s grace, regains his will to live in optimism. Applying his prodigious speaking talents, he runs against Clive as the socialist and progressive. Into the confounding mix comes Lady Dare (Jasmin Walker’s portrayal as the emotionally enthralled Dare sparkles with charm). Startled by Smith when he visits Clive to discuss his candidacy, she becomes intrigued talking to him, and her fascination brings her to one of Smith’s meetings. Afterward, she ponders his ideas and contrasts them with Clive’s political platform. Confused, befuddled, entranced, and bewildered by Smith, she seeks him out. Despite herself, she pursues him romantically. Smith, though passionately embroiled in his campaign, requites her interest.
Malleson provides the ironic set-up in the first scene. Thus, he is able through the rest of the play to unwind his characters so they careen down unexpected twists and turns along their separate journeys. This fine play structure and characterization assists the actors who create an exhilarating, vital, charged atmosphere. Because of the ensemble’s excellent skills, we empathize with the characters.
First, we greatly identify with Smith who reveals his passion and determination to reform the worst elements of the economic social structure. On the other hand we sympathize with Clive who has lost his beau to a rival whom he could have destroyed with uncivil cruelty. And we also feel for Lord Bellingdon. We understand he will be apoplectic about his daughter’s love interest in a man who opposes his way of life. Surely, Bellingdon will oppose any further relationship.
Indeed, since Malleson’s characterizations ring with authenticity, we anticipate that Bellingdon’s and Lady Dare’s stubbornness will not easily allow them to accede to each other’s position. Likewise Clive, who might damage Smith’s campaign with secret information, must either run on his own merits against Smith or “destroy” him in jealous revenge. As for Lady Dare, will she continue to be enamored of a man who excites her because he touches upon simmering possibilities of who she might become? Or does he merely pique her curiosity and quell the boredom of her uninteresting life? She is a modern, liberated woman! When she becomes better acquainted with him, will she throw him over to seek someone else?
How Malleson chooses to unravel these conflicts toward a satisfying conclusion remains an intricate puzzle. Indeed, it results because of his assiduous care in fashioning likeable, human characters. For like us, when forced with the exigencies of circumstance, they scramble and gyrate to solve their problems. And they compromise. The ironic ending captures the current trend toward women coming into their own. In an evolutionary state, these women shed binding folkways of the past and establish new ways of living in hope and love.
Not enough praise can be bestowed upon the actors, director, and creative team. Certainly, they have elevated Malleson as a “modernist” and timeless playwright. And they have stirred our desire to see more of his exceptional work. Above all, honor goes to The Mint Theater for its extraordinary efforts with this luminous work.
Kudos go to actors James Prendergast, Jasmin Walker, Amelia White. Praise goes to John McDermott for sets, M.L. Geiger for lighting, Toby Algya for sound and original music, Robert-Charles Vallance for wig and hair design, and Martha Hally for costumes.
Conflict presented by The Mint Theater Company runs with one intermission at The Beckett Theatre (410 42nd Street). This gobsmacking prodution is a must-see. It closes on 21 July. Don’t miss it! CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS.