With Miles Malleson’s 1925 Conflict, being given its New York premiere, the Mint has uncovered a brilliant political and social drama which has tremendous relevance for today with its dissection of conservative and liberal points of view. It resembles Shaw and Tom Stoppard in its debate of ideas and Galsworthy and Arthur Miller in its moral integrity. Superbly directed by Jenn Thompson (Women Without Men) with a crackerjack cast, this is not only one of the Mint’s best offerings, it is also the most satisfying play in town. Framed as both a thriller and a romantic comedy, Conflict is absorbing and exciting theater throughout, the sort of play that has you hanging on every word to see which way it will go.
Graeme Malcolm, Jeremy Beck and Henry Clarke in a scene from the Mint Theater Company’s production of “Conflict” by Miles Malleson (Photo credit: Todd Cerveris)Pampered, spoiled, and entitled Lady Dare Bellingdon has been having a long term affair with Major Sir Ronald Clive, a friend of her father, without Lord Bellingdon’s knowledge. Although Clive often proposes, Lady Dare feels that something is missing though she cannot define what she wants. When Clive stands for Parliament as the Conservative candidate with her father’s backing, Dare meets the Labour candidate Tom Smith, a well-spoken, mannerly young man of deep convictions about social justice and economic inequality.
While Lord Bellingdon and Clive are fighting to maintain their lifestyles and the status quo, Smith is on the side of change and reform for the millions who represent the underclass. Her father dismisses the Labour Party as dangerous and misguided, but Dare who has never thought about these things before begins reading the newspapers and attending meetings. Brought into contact with Smith, his passion for his beliefs is contagious and Dare unwittingly falls in love with him. She finally discovers that she has a social conscience but this puts her in conflict with both her father and Clive.
Though Smith in more prosperous days was up at Cambridge with Clive, Clive doesn’t recall meeting him. Smith’s economic and social decline (his father losing his money, his parents’ death, Smith’s illness and inability to earn a living as his studies were in music which he could not write what was commercially acceptable) had taught him what the majority of the people go through. Smith points out to Dare that she and her father have 60 rooms for two people in their two houses, but all she can counter with is that 20 servants live with them also.
When Smith spells out economic inequality to Dare (“If you had one hundred people in this room—representing the whole population—two would be very rich, eight comfortable, sixty more or less poor, and thirty starving. And the ten at the top would own as much as the other ninety put together”), she is shocked. But then so is the audience as it is much worse today with the top one percent owning the majority of the capital. However, what makes Conflict so successful is that it gives equal arguments to both sides. Even Dare’s sometime fiancé Clive points out that her dress bill alone would keep ten families for a year.
Under Thompson’s fast-paced and silken smooth direction, the cast of seven is excellent in a play that takes place three generations ago. Jessie Shelton (recently of Cruel Intentions) is both feisty and graceful as the privileged heroine who has never examined that birthright. In a layered and nuanced performance as Tom Smith, Jeremy Beck (a regular at the now defunct TACT) is an admirable hero. The one small flaw in the production is the lack of seeming heat between Smith and Dare. However, this may be a planned choice since as a lower class man (that he has become), Smith remains true to his social class, this being 1925, and Dare being a titled lady.
As Dare’s father, Lord Bellingdon, Graeme Malcolm’s grandiose stiff backboned performance as the staunch Tory with a walrus mustache puts one in mind of the courtly well-bred British actors who populated Hollywood in the 1930’s and 40’s like Sir C. Aubrey Smith and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Henry Clarke as Major Sir Ronald Clive gives a suave account of an upper class gentleman. In her one scene as Smith’s landlady, Amelia White is hilarious as a lower class woman who explains why she and her friends don’t vote. Jasmin Walker as the Hon. Mrs. Tremayne, Dare’s friend, is a cool widow who is glad to be her own mistress. James Prendergast who has a tremendous number of classic plays on his résumé gets the most out of Daniells, the Bellingdons’ butler who can makes his disapproval felt with just his tone of voice.
The sumptuous production values suggest a much more expensive budget than the Mint most likely had to spend. John McDermott’s posh setting for the Bellingdons’ morning room is wood-paneled with beautiful period furniture as well as pricey props by designer Chris Field. The one scene set elsewhere, Smith’s bed-sit, cleverly appears from within the walls of the larger set. The costumes by Martha Hally include beautiful dresses for the women and stylish suits for the men. Even Smith’s shabby outfit when we first see him is spot on. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting has the same soft ambiance as the set. Toby Algya’s sound design includes lovely palm court music between the scenes.
Until recently, Miles Malleson was remembered only as a popular British character actor who appeared in such classic films as The Thief of Baghdad, Major Barbara, The Importance of Being Earnest, Hitchcock’s Stage Fright and with Sir Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit and The Captain’s Paradise, as well as a translator of Moliere. In 2017, the Mint rediscovered him presenting the world premiere of his Yours, Unfaithfully. While that play seemed dated and old-fashioned, Conflict is not only prescient in its political rhetoric, but also has a message that needs to be heard at this juncture in history. A ripping good entertainment as well, The Mint Theater Company production is not to be missed.
Conflict (through July 21, 2018)
Mint Theater Company
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-947-8844 or visit http://www.minttheater.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes with one intermission