We bring back some plays from the past because, no matter when they were written, they always seem to be taking place right now. Others get revived because, periodically, some single aspect of their story seems, for a moment, startlingly prophetic. And then there’s the third kind of revival: the plays that get brought back as a way of reminding theatergoers how times have changed, hopefully for the better, since they were written. Varying in quality from stale leftovers to enchanting curios, such pieces can vary almost as much in the ways they inform us about the difference between past and present—anything from table manners to an era’s indefinable state of mind may be involved.
Allan Monkhouse’s 1912 comedy, Mary Broome, now getting its first New York production since 1919 courtesy of the enterprising Mint Theater, falls into that third category. Not a great play, almost as annoying for its dramatic flaws as for the now-dead social attitudes it aims to mock, it warrants revival on the grounds that its dislikability makes it just odd enough to be intriguing.
Monkhouse (1858–1936) came to playwriting late. A sometime theater critic and editor of the lofty Manchester Guardian, in midlife he caught the theatrical bug that had been stirring in England since the rise of London’s independent-theater movement in the late 1880s, and had flowered with Bernard Shaw and Granville Barker’s years at the Court Theatre (1904–07). Manchester chimed in when Annie Horniman, a theatrically inclined rich woman (and an early patron of Shaw’s), established a repertory theater there in 1907. Monkhouse joined the group of mostly younger, determinedly realistic playwrights clustering around it, inevitably christened the Manchester School.
In 1910, the school unveiled its keystone work, Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice (revived not long ago by the Atlantic Theater). Move Brighouse’s play up a notch socioeconomically, and you’d get something resembling Mary Broome—only wrenched totally awry by its recalcitrant hero, Leonard Timbrell (Roderick Hill), the hopelessly indolent aesthete younger son of a gruff, prosperous businessman (Graeme Malcolm).
Though not its title character, Leonard is Mary Broome‘s central focus. Mary herself (Janie Brookshire) is the Timbrells’ housemaid, whom, the play reveals early on, Leonard has impregnated. Suffused with respectability, the Timbrells are torn between the desire to do the right thing and the horrified thought of how embarrassing it will look, especially since Leonard’s elder brother, Edgar (Rod Brogan), and his fiancée, Sheila (Julie Jesneck), are just about to have a big, ultra-correct society wedding. (The news of Mary’s pregnancy breaks just as Sheila has been fretting about Leonard’s unsuitability for the role of best man.)
Only his gruff pater’s threat to cut off his allowance makes Leonard, a hapless literary dilettante incapable of earning a penny, agree to marry Mary, who finds him appealing as a man but a worst-possible choice for a husband. Always off in the clouds or viewing the world speculatively from the sidelines, he tends to wax either flippant or rhapsodic when he talks, and talk is pretty much all he can do. His similarity to the anti-heroic heroes of Shaw and other Court playwrights, like St. John Hankin and Somerset Maugham (both subjects of previous Mint revivals), is manifest.
What flaws Mary Broome is that Monkhouse, unlike Shaw or his Court successors, hasn’t built his event to hold his hero’s unhinged tone: Reality keeps crashing in to make Leonard look like either a gibbering nitwit or a tactless creep. Monkhouse lacks Shaw’s ability to push these moments up towards tragedy or down into comedy. Instead, the result simply looks, too often, like a writer trying to make his tonal confusion seem Chekhovian: Imagine an Oscar Wilde comedy in which a baby dies of malnutrition and you’ll see what I mean.
Inevitably, the script’s muddle breeds uncertainty on stage. Jonathan Bank’s production, though one of his tighter and better-shaped efforts, can’t seem to locate a serious line to hew to, and dampens many laugh lines while searching. Malcolm blusters, melodramatically but effectively; Brookshire makes Mary overly meek. Hill, in effect licensed by the playwright to do as he pleases, has somewhat better luck, while Douglas Rees and Jill Tanner do well in two small roles each, and Patricia Kilgarriff, as a grumpy landlady, supplies one genuine glimpse of Mancunian realism.