By Joseph Hurley
THE FLATTERING WORD, by George Kelly, playing with A FAREWELL TO THE THEATRE, by Harley Granville-Barker. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. At Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd St., NYC. Through Dec. 17.
Writers sometimes go in and out of fashion like hemlines and automobile tail fins. One of the joyous aspects of the last couple of theatrical seasons has been the opportunity to see the work of two grossly neglected, gifted playwrights, the Irish-American George Kelly and the British Harley Granville-Barker, enjoying some time in the sun after long periods in the chilling darkness where forgotten reputations are warehoused.
Thanks to the resourceful, courageous Mint Theater Company, the writers are represented on a double bill of thematically linked one-act plays, both of them about the theater, or at least concerned with the conflicts between "acting" and merely "living."
George Kelly, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Craig’s Wife" in 1925, was the author of numerous other plays, including "The Show-Off," which became a triumphant vehicle for Helen Hayes late in her career, and "The Torchbearers," which was given a brief, brilliant revival last season by the Drama Department.
Kelly was one of the most trenchantly witty writers of serious comedy in the 1920s and ’30s. He was also actress Grace Kelly’s uncle, and the Philadelphia in which she was raised was the same city about which he wrote, although he often peopled his plays with representatives of the working class, as opposed to the Main Line enclaves in which his family made their homes.
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Kelly had a great knack for capturing the speech patterns and the foibles of his small-town Pennsylvania burghers. That his contribution to the Mint’s bill, "The Flattering Word," is set in a parsonage in Youngstown, Ohio, matters not in the least, and dulls his sharp ear not at all.
Mary Rigley (Sioux Madden, in a moving and subtle performance), has been the wife of the dully conventional Rev. Loring Rigley (Michael Stebbins) for seven years, before which she had been a student in Baltimore.
In Baltimore, she’d had a close relationship with a fellow student, Eugene Tesh, (Allyn Burrows), who went on to become a touring company actor, and who, Mary learns, is about to make a one-night appearance in Youngstown.
She invites the actor to the parsonage for tea, immersing him in what, to begin with, is a hostile, chilly atmosphere presided over by the board-stiff Reverend and Mrs. Zooker, (Colleen Smith Wallnau), a housekeeper, and a child, Lena (Sara Barnett), who harbors a barely concealed tropism for performing.
Eugene turns the tide by telling Mary that informing anyone, absolutely anyone, that they belong on the stage, will thaw even the iciest heart, and then puts his theory to the test using the reverend, the housekeeper and the child as guinea pigs. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s epic poem "Ring Out, Wild Bells," a raging favorite among teachers of elocution in the first half of the last century, takes a tremendous and hilarious beating first from little Lena and then from Rev. Rigley. Whether or not it ever recovers is uncertain at this time.
Acting as director, actor Gus Kaikkonen displays a sure sense of comedic pacing and an unfailing awareness of nuance without ever compromising the firm touch of George Kelly’s writing.
Harley Granville-Barker’s half of the Mint’s engrossing evening, "A Farewell to the Theatre," is something else again. It is a dark-hued polemic in which a celebrated British actress and manager of her own troupe, Dorothy Taverner, a grande dame of a certain age, visits the London law offices of Edward, a man she once came close to marrying, in order to discuss her desire to disband her company and retire. Dorothy is clearly a stand-in for Granville-Barker himself, and the feelings she espouses reflect his own jaded views.
Sally Kemp gives a spectacularly intelligent, subtly calibrated, and frequently moving account of herself as Dorothy. Veteran actor George Morfogen supplies staunch support as Edward. The play itself emerges as a theatrical gem of rarest value. This, of course, raises the question of why it is so unfamiliar and why it isn’t constantly on view, performed by an endless string of actresses as they think of the future and want to make a statement about the profession that has nurtured them and from which they are about to withdraw. It’s tempting to wonder why Katharine Cornell, Judith Anderson, Ethel Barrymore, Jessica Tandy and dozens of others appear never to have undertaken this especially fine and very specific short play.
Here again, as he did with George Kelly’s sprightly little frolic, director Kaikkonen handles "A Farewell to the Theatre" with grace and understanding. Both written in 1916 by men who were working actors as well as writers. They pair so well together that it’s amazing that there seems to be no record of them having been done in New York before, either together or separately. Admirers of both Harley Granville-Barker and George Kelly, therefore, owe the little space on West 43rd Street a genuine debt of gratitude.