Neith Boyce’s The Sea Lady, a Broadway-bound play in 1935, only now having its world premiere at Metropolitan Playhouse is an attempt at a Shavian play of ideas. Based on a 1901 novel by socialist H.G. Wells, this very Edwardian story resembles Shaw’s Misalliance but without the wit or the scope of ideas. Extremely tentative in how far it dares to go, The Sea Lady seems like a relic of an earlier age. It has charm but it lacks depth; its message may have been new in 1901 when the novel came out or 1935 when the play was finished, but today it seems extremely old hat.
In an English seaside resort near Folkestone, England, a mermaid pretends to be drowning and is rescued by the Randolph Buntings who are summering there. Aside from Mr. Bunting is his son Fred and his social climbing wife Amanda, Fred’s fiancée Mabel Glendower and her sister Adeline, an heiress, engaged to Harry Chatteris, reluctant candidate for Parliament. The Sea Lady as she is known takes the name of Doris Thalassia Waters and is fascinated by English society: cigarettes, tea, dressing for dinner, money, marriage rituals, etc. She manages to shock the older people with her beliefs that there is a better way of life in which one does not have to follow duty and obligation but follows one’s own wishes and desires. It appears that she has seen Harry before when he was in Honolulu and she has fallen for him. Her stating that she wants to obtain a soul most likely has a double meaning.
Harry who is not very interested in his parliamentary campaign is fascinated both by the Sea Lady and the philosophy she represents. When he appears to throw over his engagement to the ambitious Adeline who is helping to get him elected, the big guns are brought in to save him from himself, his imperious aunt Lady Poynting-Mallow, Horace Melville, a lawyer cousin of Mrs. Bunting, and Adeline Glendower herself. Harry must be made to see reason and not throw up his promising career, with the right wife by his side.
While these ideas may have been startling in the Edwardian England where protocol and decorum reigned, the Bohemians and the Hippies have always advocated Free Love and sharing of everything. Those of us who lived through the 1960’s and 1970’s have heard it all before and there are many who lived those very ideas. Unlike a Shaw play which would have a very surprising denouement, The Sea Lady chooses convention and respectability for its ending. While it all has a kind of Edwardian charm, the play is rather thin considering the dangerous ideas that it flirts with.
Director Alex Roe has done a fine job with his cast of eleven, but the play seems long and slow, particularly since the first half is an hour and 45 minutes. Elisabeth Ahrens as the Sea Lady is utterly charming but does not make as big an impression as she should as the play puts her in a wheelchair because as a mermaid she can’t walk and doesn’t give her much to do. As her love interest, the restless and restive Harry Chatteris, Dexter McKinney II has a deft touch but also seems lightweight as the confused hero.
As his hostess, Mrs. Bunting, Laura Pruden is quite charming and ditzy in the way of MGM film stars of the golden age, Billie Burke and Spring Byington. Ursula Anderson as Harry’s fiancée Adeline demonstrates range and fortitude. Not only is she determined to win against the Sea Lady, she also plans to propel Chatteris’ career to glorious heights – and we believe her. In the role that the Edwardian theater called the Raisonneur, Joe Candelora as Horace Melville makes a fine impression as the character left to explain the way things are and should be to the other characters. The play is stolen by Kim Yancey Moore as Lady Poynting-Mallow, the wittiest and wisest character in the play and one worthy of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, a combination of Lady Britomart in Major Barbara and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. It is only her lines which provoke laughter in the play.
There is much doubling among the minor characters which is disconcerting when seemingly important personages reappear suddenly in other lesser roles; Alex Brightwell as the Bunting’s son Fred appears as both the Second Reporter and the Porter at the Hotel; his father Randolph show up as the Policeman as well as the Third Reporter; Erin Leigh Schmoyer is first seen as Mabel, Adeline’s sister, and then as the First Reporter who thinks she had gotten the story of the visiting mermaid which no one will confirm.
Roe’s unit set design with its blue seascape is quite attractive and is suitable for all of the scenes plus or minus the white wicker furniture. The costumes by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta bring to life the Edwardian Era with the beautiful women’s gowns in various colors and white, brown and black three-piece suits for the men. Heather M. Crocker’s lighting suggests the aura of a seaside report with both sunny days and moon drenched nights. The sound design by Michael Hardart is redolent of the period.
The Sea Lady is a charming attempt to recreate Edwardian drawing room comedy with a subtle bite. Unfortunately, it seems more than a bit dated now after 120 years of revolt over the rules of society. H.G. Wells may have been a staunch socialist but Neith Boyce’s efforts to put this novel on the stage do not do his ideas justice. The production, however, is a deserved tribute to the bygone age of drawing room comedy.
The Sea Lady (through October 30, 2022)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.MetropolitanPlayhouse.org/tickets
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission