“New” is a relative term in the case of Harold Chapin’s 1911 comedy of manners, The New Morality, whose ethical quandaries must have felt old a century ago. Now playing at the Mint Theater in a revival directed by Jonathan Bank, this tale of cranky aristocrats in houseboats offers intermittent pleasures, if few provocations to anyone’s moral code.
Betty (Brenda Meaney) and her husband, Colonel Ivor (Michael Frederic), are summering on the Thames when the marital waters get rough: Ivor lavishes too much attention on their neighbor, Mrs. Wister. Insulted, Betty boards the Wister vessel and hurls profanities at Mrs. W. Social fallout ensues. Mr. Wister (Ned Noyes) accuses Betty of libel, launching a string of convoluted negotiations among all four parties. Meanwhile, Betty’s brother (Christian Campbell) observes the action, commenting pessimistically on its implications for human nature.
There’s something mildly amusing about The New Morality‘s unapologetic lack of dramatic incident, and Meaney breathes life into its witty, reluctantly vulnerable heroine. But Chapin’s humor is disappointingly tepid, and it’s hard to feel much for people whose biggest problem is a mild case of misunderstanding.
“What a lot of trouble I’m giving everyone,” observes Betty. Was it worth it? Reviving underproduced drama — the Mint’s specialty — can be exciting, but it helps if the old material has the substance to challenge us anew.
The New Morality
By Harold Chapin
The Mint Theater
311 West 43rd Street