Anne and Stephen Meredith, free thinkers both believing in free love for all, have been happily married for eight years. However, Stephen, a novelist, has become moody and unable to write, and Anne thinks that he ought to have an affair to spice up his life. And when Diana, the widow of one of their best friends, just returned from a year’s trip, visits them, Anne gives them both her blessing. Unfortunately, when Stephen and Diana begin a relationship, Anne is surprised to find that she is jealous and fearful of losing Stephen permanently, something she has never considered before. This she reveals to her confidant, Alan, the local doctor with whom she had a brief affair three years earlier before he was married.
To complicate matters, Stephen’s Anglican minister father Gordon, a very conservative and strait-laced human being for whom all things are either black or white, hears about Stephen and Diana from a third party and arrives to chastise him. We have been told by this time that Stephen’s liberated ideas began in childhood as a reaction to his totally inflexible and rigid father. Is it any wonder that the son went in the opposite direction?
The play may not have been staged in Malleson’s lifetime as it was too close to his own story. He and his wife the former Lady Constance Annesley had an open marriage and she had a long-term affair with free thinker Bertrand Russell. Malleson himself left Constance when he met Dr. Joan Billson whom he married in 1923, but left her for journalist Beth Tomalin in 1931, leaving Joan devastated, hence this play.
One problem is that the play (unlike Noel Coward’s Design for Living or Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife which cover similar territory) is neither witty not clever, and none of the lines are particularly sparkling or original. While the play may delineate liberated sexual behavior, its drawing room comedy format is too conventional and refined. All five performers always seem to be acting as their style is too arch to be truly believable.
As to the plotting, the audience is always one step ahead of the characters so that there really are no surprises. We also never know how far Stephen and Diana have gone; it may simply be all talk. Besides, as Stephen and Anne run a private school for children, one would assume that they would have to be above reproach. Also their own two children never seem to figure into the equation: has anyone considered what happens to them if their marriage or reputation is smashed? Time and the change in social mores may have made Yours Unfaithfully seem passé in today’s world.
Whether a different acting style might have helped is a moot point as the play has no previous history to compare the current production. Under Bank’s direction, the cast made up of Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray as the Merediths, Mikaela Izquierdo as Diana, Stephen Schnetzer as Stephen’s Anglican minister father, and Todd Cerveris as the family friend Dr. Alan Kirby is always deft, cultivated and restrained. Hunter Kaczorowski’s thirties period clothing is lovely both for the men and the women. The lighting by Xavier Pierce changes subtly, and Jane Shaw’s original music is graceful and delicate, becoming more intense as the evening goes on.
Only the sets by Carolyn Mraz leave something to be desired: for a couple with such modern ideas, both residences, the sitting room in the country house and the bed-sit in London, look dowdy and drab. Except for the painting over the fireplace in the primary residence which resembles a Kandinsky, the furnishings do not look like anything either Anne or Stephen would choose to live with, not to mention the unattractive clash of styles.
The world premiere of the 1933 Yours Unfaithfully is particularly disappointing as it is only one of two productions at the estimable Mint in the last 21 years that fail to satisfy. Don’t blame the actors. Either the playwright or the director has let them down. It resembles one of those latter-day British sex farces in which the characters debate endlessly about intimate relations but end up being more faithful than they ever expected.
Yours Unfaithfully (through February 18, 2017)
The Mint Theater Company
The Beckett Theater at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
Running time two hours and 10 minutes with two intermissions