Headlines recently trumpeted that 2015 has been the world’s hottest summer on record, so it is a little uncanny to hear characters in Harold Chapin’s 1911-12 comedy, The New Morality (at the Mint Theater Company), also speaking about record-breaking heat. Chapin definitely seems to have been prescient to some degree: This play deals with such 21st-century-relevant matters as gender essences and the values and limits of “progressivism.” But who would imagine that Chapin might also have had a premonition about global warming?
He was Brooklyn-born (in 1886) but grew up in England with his feminist mother, actress Alice Chapin. His promising career as a playwright would be cut short during World War I -- he was killed while serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
The play provides an unsettling glimpse into a household — and perhaps a world — struggling to maintain order. In its concerns with social mores, The New Morality sometimes seems aligned with the dramas of George Bernard Shaw. At other points it feels like a precursor to the brittle drawing room comedies of Noël Coward. But try as they may to be scintillating, Chapin’s characters seem bogged down with the Freudian and Darwinian trappings their new century was heir to. Most everyone seems on edge, unsure about social and sexual roles. The play is set on a houseboat on the Thames — and though the vessel is docked, those aboard it appear to be unmoored, adrift.
The action begins on the morning after Betty Jones (Brenda Meaney) has launched a loud, profane tirade against one Muriel Wister, a woman living in a nearby houseboat. The incident has created an instant scandal in the floating neighborhood. Betty’s motive is that her puffer fish of a husband, Colonel Ivor Jones (Michael Frederic) has — or so Betty claims — been made a fool by Mrs. Wister.
It’s clear there’s been no sexual impropriety on the colonel’s part. Rather, Muriel has somehow made Ivor her pet and lackey — a fetcher of hairpins, etc. Betty fails to understand why her husband has allowed himself to be placed in such a ridiculous position. Ivor can’t perceive what he’s done that’s been objectionable. Before long, Muriel’s husband “Teddy” (Ned Noyes) turns up, demanding that Betty apologize to his wife. When Betty refuses to do so, she is threatened with legal action for her defamatory outburst. She blithely claims she’ll go to prison rather than back down. Later her ponderously professional brother, barrister Geoffrey Belasis (Christian Campbell), arrives to help salvage things.
Director Jonathan Banks and his cast have likely done all the right things to embody the playwright’s vision of the characters. However, those characters come off as a fairly unpleasant lot. Meaney’s Betty takes a smug delight in her own outrageousness, seldom showing concern that the stakes for her in the case are quite high. Frederic’s Ivor often seems a bundle of slow burns. You almost expect to see clouds of steam blast out of his ears.
The most effective performance among the leads is that of Noyes, who’s especially good in a protracted Act 3 drunk scene. Among supporting actors, Douglas Rees has an amusing turn as the Joneses’ loyal — and concerned — butler.