The Mint Theater is reviving another thoroughly engaging play you’ve never heard of. This time it’s Miles Malleson’s Conflict, a 1925 political comedy, with fast-paced direction by Jenn Thompson and brightly polished performances from a noteworthy cast of seven.
Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s producing artistic director, has a knack for locating mislaid treasures by dramatists familiar and obscure. During the 23 years of Bank’s leadership, the Mint has produced more than 50 plays—mostly from the United States, Britain, and Ireland—that deserve the attention of contemporary audiences. Over those years, the aesthetic caliber of productions has advanced so markedly that the Mint is now one of Off-Broadway’s most outstanding companies.
Malleson (1888–1969) was a character actor whose doughy face and rotund figure are immortalized onscreen in such films as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Importance of Being Earnest. As a playwright, however, he has largely been forgotten.
Conflict, a competently crafted boulevard comedy, is catnip to Thompson and the Mint’s excellent actors who lend a roller-coaster intensity to the narrative ups and downs. The script lacks the heft and originality of Hindle Wakes by Stanley Houghton (another forgotten English dramatist), which the Mint staged to a fare-thee-well earlier this year; but, amid the complications of its conventional romantic plot, Malleson conveys much that’s enlightening about British politics, social mores, and class friction during the period just after Parliament granted women the right to vote.
The play opens with a strong, suspenseful first act in which wealthy Lord Bellingdon (Graeme Malcolm) and his younger friend Sir Ronald Clive (Henry Clarke) confront a wee-hours intruder in Bellingdon’s mansion. The burglar turns out to be Tom Smith (Jeremy Beck), whom Clive knew casually when they were undergraduates at Cambridge. Desperately down on his luck, Smith has been following Clive—“stalking,” we’d call it now—hoping for a chance to renew their acquaintance and elicit a handout.
Caught with sticky fingers in Lord Bellingdon’s cigar box, Smith launches into a lament of the setbacks that have reduced him from privilege to panhandling. His is a complicated tale of lost family wealth, dead loved ones, professional rejection, and debilitating illness.
When his sob story evokes only mild sympathy, Smith lashes out at Clive, Bellingdon, and their whole class: “If you think because you’re rich you’re a tremendously fine, deserving sort of human being, you’re all wrong! If you’re rich these days, you may be a rogue, or you may be just lucky.”
In the spirit of noblesse oblige, Clive gives Smith a sizable cash gift before sending him out into frigid night. Thus Malleson, whose dramaturgy is notably schematic, establishes the diametric opposition of leading characters who will be rivals for the rest of the play—first in politics and then in their private lives.
When, a year and a half later, Clive announces that he’s the Conservative Party candidate for the House of Commons, Smith turns up, revived and respectable, as Labour Party candidate for the same seat. But the conflict of Conflict really heats up when Clive’s love interest—Lady Dare (Jessie Shelton), pampered daughter of Lord Bellingdon—becomes intrigued by the socialist principles Smith espouses. Soon she is also captivated by the man himself.
Malleson wrote Conflict at a moment when the still-fledgling Labour Party was consolidating its base under leadership of future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Nine decades later, on this side of the Atlantic, Smith’s defense of Labour’s principles, expressively delivered by Beck, has a timely ring: “It seems to me pretty clear that, in these days of science and machinery, if we really wanted, as a first step to a more sensible world, to produce enough clothes and food and warmth for everybody, we could; the only thing that’s lacking is a common purpose, deeply enough felt among enough people, that the thing’s got to be done.”
Beck, Shelton, and Clarke are first-rate as the vertices of Malleson’s tense romantic triangle; and they’re well supported by Malcolm, James Prendergast as a Bellingdon family retainer, and, in less prominent roles, Jasmin Walker and Amelia White. Despite limitations of an Off-Broadway budget, the resourceful design team—John McDermott (sets), Mary Louise Geiger (lights), Martha Hally (costumes), and Toby Algya (sound and original music)—has created a production that vividly conjures the Jazz Age and illustrates the contrast between the luxe world of Clive and the Bellingdons and the impoverishment of the British masses whom Smith and his Labour Party colleagues aim to represent.
Conflict, presented by the Mint Theater, plays through July 21 at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (also Wednesday, July 18). For information and tickets, visit minttheater.org.