The Mint Theater Company’s American premiere of Noël Coward’s 1918 The Rat Trap is a startling revelation as it is so different from his later works as well as a remarkable achievement for a 19-year-old’s third full-length play. While Coward’s own voice is not yet formed, the play is clever and sophisticated, with dialogue that is brittle and scintillating though not yet epigramic and witty.
This drawing room drama with comic overtones seems to be heavily influenced by Ibsen’s A Doll House, Wilde’s The Ideal Husband and Shaw’s Candida as well as the plays of Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. It predates the message of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own which was not published until 1928. Making his New York debut, British director Alexander Lass’ production is smart, polished and urbane, though not all of the acting is on the same level.
On the eve of her marriage to up and coming dramatist Keld Maxwell, brilliant young novelist Sheila Brandreth is given a warning by her previously married friend Olive Lloyd-Kennedy, who is somewhat older than she: when two egotists marry, one must be willing to sacrifice a certain amount of personality for the other. Olive predicts as the more brilliant one, it will be Sheila who will be expected to make the sacrifice. Six months later Sheila finds herself exactly in that position: she must decide between running Keld’s house and affairs or keeping up with her own writing. And, when after his first play is presented in London, she discovers that he has been unfaithful, she wonders if her sacrifice has been worth it. Will she be able to survive a trap of her own making?
The talk of marriage and relationships resembles the later discussions in Private Lives and Design for Living as does the discussion of Bohemian life styles. While the small cast of seven becomes a trademark of Coward’s comedies, the need for three sets is more than Coward was to use later. The play ends rather abruptly with a scene that resembles the first act of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession and offers a surprisingly conventional ending, but one that is entirely convincing under the circumstances.
Sarin Monae West as Sheila is both charming and complex, while James Evans as her husband starts out amiable and appealing and just as Olive predicted he becomes arrogant, superior and demanding, a typical Edwardian husband. Elisabeth Gray makes Olive’s lines seem wittier than they are with her elegant and chic portrait. As their mutual friend Naomi Frith-Bassington, a successful novelist, Heloise Lowenthal is believably mannered as a young woman attempting to act Bohemian. However, Ramzi Khalaf as her unmarried partner poet Edmund Crowe is too affected and not very convincing. As Ruby Raymond, a musical comedy actress who has a success in Keld’s first play and becomes smitten with him, Claire Saunders is too obvious indicating her intentions from a mile away. However, Cynthia Mace as the very English housekeeper and cook Burrage has just the right sangfroid and stiff upper lip.
While Vicki R. Davis’ three sets are not as lavish as usual by Mint Theater standards, her design for Keld’s study in the Act II Belgravia house is most well-appointed. While the play’s dialogue suggests the 1920’s, Hunter Kaczorowski’s chic costumes appear to be late Edwardian by the length of the women’s skirts. Bill Toles’ sound design includes popular songs of the period like Coward’s own “Forbidden Fruit,” an ironic comment on the action, performed and recorded by Shelton Becton.
Noël Coward’s The Rat Trap is not only entertaining but seems to have been ahead of its time. Discounted by critics and the author alike when it had its only production until now in 1926, the play turns out to be a cogent exploration of a creative woman’s search for her place in society, one which has no niche for her talents once she is a married woman. The Mint Theater Company does the play justice, restoring its reputation as an Edwardian period piece on the topic of the New Woman who is also a gifted artist. In Sarin Monae West and Elisabeth Gray we see the work of talented performers who we want to see more of in the future.
The Rat Trap (through December 10, 2022)
Mint Theater Company
New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.minttheater.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission