Miles Malleson, the playwright of the Mint Theater Company‘s newest revival, Conflict – A Love Story, was well known as a character actor, “acting the fool most memorably” in a number of films such as Nell Gwyn (1934) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). He was also celebrated for his translations and adaptations of several Molière’s plays (The Misanthrope, which he titled The Slave of Truth, Tartuffe and The Imaginary Invalid). To a lesser degree, he was known in England as an accomplished screenwriter of dozens of films and a witty writer of provocative stage plays. A love of progressive politics and enactor of personal modern relationships, Malleson (1888–1969) infused his plays with social justice, personal freedoms, and modern attitudes towards sex and marriage. Idealistic conflicts with the hope of creating a better more civilized world, while simultaneously trying to decipher one’s own self in terms of love and commitment were common themes in such comedies such as The Fanatics (1927) and Yours Unfaithfully (1933). And we can see those themes with abundance inside his 1925 drama that the Mint Theater Company set its eyes on (after presenting Yours Unfaithfully back in 2016), capturing the ears and eyes of this solid and detailed theatrical company for a well constructed revival. Bringing his fascinating blend of complex political and social reform enriched within a modern and daring romance seems just the kind of thing this theater company excels at and with Malleson’s well crafted and sparkling Conflict, the Mint has done it again, arriving with a production beautifully rendered, fully intact, and ready for examination.
Played out mostly in the well-appointed sitting room of Lord Bellingdon’s London residence, masterfully created by designer John McDermott (Bedlam’s Peter Pan), with lovely warm lighting by Mary Louise Geiger (TACT’s Three Wise Guys) and exacting sound design by Toby Algya (The Lucky One), the love story that Malleson wants to tell starts out with a very different tone and an oddly off-balanced footing. A well dressed couple, casually (almost too casually) lounges on the couch relaxing after a night out on the town. It doesn’t feel that scandalous, but in retrospect, the hour and the ease are a bit out of the ordinary to the period they are in. The daughter of the Lord of the house, The Lady Dare Bellingdon, played succinctly by Jessie Shelton (NYTW’s Hadestown) sips her brandy and makes sweet conversation with the handsome gentleman, Major Sir Ronald Clive, D.S.O., played strongly by the dashing and well spoken Henry Clarke (Hartford’s Private Lives). He obviously adores her making his intentions very clear and purposeful. As directed by Jenn Thompson (TACT’s Abundance), they seem to have a very modern approach to one another, which appears to fit very neatly on Dare, much like the beautiful clothes designed by Martha Hally (Mint’s Women Without Men) hanging on her back. Ronald seems to want to move to the more traditional, but Dare shrugs that off like an old too constricting coat. What he is suggesting is a historical notion that she has no interest in, but the atmosphere remains polite and at ease, until they both hear and see something out of the ordinary.
There seems to be a man lurking around the garden and driveway of the Lord’s beautiful finely appointed home, and quickly the piece shifts to a suspenseful moment of drama culminating with the shocking entrance of the Lord Bellingdon himself, played billowing by the impressive Graeme Malcolm (City Center’s Ring Twice for Miranda). He brandishes a gun and an aggressive protective and privileged air, filling the room with his strong presence and sense of stature in the world around him. Dare is sent away by her father and Ronald, up to her room to go to bed, so the men can talk casually over a drink. It’s quite the strange moment, like a pair of proud protectors savoring their regale win, but I was a tad bit startled by the whole affair. I couldn’t imagine just sauntering off to bed knowing that a stranger is hiding in the bushes. It seemed so casual, like a shrug and a skip off to bed, but that’s just one of the many odd circumstances that plays out in the first scene. That being said, it’s probably the one and only poorly constructed moments within a pretty solidly formulated play as none of their reactions that night really make a whole lot of sense. But the dynamics are needed and required to bring forth the most compelling character in Conflict, both for me, for the play, and most definitely for the soon to be shaken up Lady Dare. I just wish the playwright or the revivalists found a more logical and sensible way to bring these people and their politics together in that fine room.
But there he is, Tom Smith, arriving sheepishly and desperate into that room, unaware or beyond caring that he is about to be confronted. His entrance in that first scene doesn’t really ring logistically true, but the fault doesn’t lie anywhere near the very fine actor, Jeremy Beck (Mint’s Hindle Wakes). His creation of the struggling and trapped Smith is beautifully thoughtful and dynamic, pleading the case of the less fortunate with a strong sense of internal self-knowledge and societal distress. His dramatic rise as the play moves exquisitely forward becomes the soil and soul of the play, giving nutrients and a warm place to grow. Without this gifted actor portraying this intelligent and thoughtful dreamer, the play might be lopsided with no internal struggle or progressive outlook, but with him at the root of the debate, Conflict literally grows strong and true. It makes complete sense that the Lady Dare would be drawn into a personal dilemma of place and privilege. Her interactions at the beginning though, especially with her trio of upper class equals; her father, her suitor, and her best friend, Mrs. Tremayne, well-played by Jasmin Walker (Broadway/New World Stage’s Avenue Q), feels overly mannered and not filled with enough giddy pleasure in her circumstance. That first scene with her ‘match made in societal heaven’ should feel somewhat more close to champagne to fully feel the weight of her transition. But she does find a way to settle into her part more and more as her mind expands like strong branches of a tree that is growing out into the world and slowly getting entangled with Smith’s strength and thoughtful conviction.
Conflict is a well meaning and well mannered social commentary wrapped up neatly in a compelling and sweetly progressive love story. It’s perfectly paced, meticulously directed, constructed in a way to connect us emotionally to their passion and politics. Mint Theater Company manages somehow to unearth these little theatrical gems, even with the flaws they sometimes carry, and find a way of presenting them with a true heart and soul. It won’t blow your socks off with gritty or strongly worded arguments, but what it does do, with soft tones and proper British accents, is find its way in quietly and with well-meaning politeness into our modern sensibilities, making a thoughtful connection to our current problematic dilemmas of class and structure. Conflict – A Love Story works its magic on us, with subtlety and a thoughtful argument for modern romance and equality. And for that, I stand and cheer its arrival.
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