Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray in the Mint Theater Company world premiere of Miles Malleson’s 1933 “Yours Unfaithfully,” directed by Jonathan Bank, at the Beckett Theatre. | RICHARD TERMINE
The Mint Theater Company is famous for unearthing old theatrical gems and polishing them to a brilliant luster for a new generation to enjoy. Plays that may have been hits back in their day yet, for whatever reason, got lost over time.
With its latest production, “Yours Unfaithfully,” the Mint even tops itself. Although the prickly comic drama, about a couple experimenting with an open marriage, was published in 1933, it was so scandalous that it was never produced. The Mint can lay claim that it has a bona fide world premiere on its hands, albeit some eight decades after its author had intended.
Written by Miles Malleson, a multi-talented yet equally neglected British dramatist and character actor who excelled on both stage and screen, the drama’s time has finally come. Under the astute direction of Jonathan Bank, the work feels fresh and vibrant, despite its 1933 setting.
A modern couple dabbles with an open marriage, in a very belated world premiere
To his credit, Malleson wrote a comedy of manners about personal choice and sexual liberation that was free from the typical moralizing and dogma of the period. If the drama feels immediate and intimate, perhaps that’s because the story is torn from a page of the playwright’s own life (he was married three times and all of them were considered open relationships).
While the plot might be unthinkable in a play staged in 1930s, it is completely fair game today — and ripe with dramatic possibility. After eight years, the once-idyllic marriage of Stephen and Anne has gone stale. Stephen, a novelist, has lost inspiration to write and has become a grouch, while Anne has grown impatient.
To reignite his passion for life, Anne encourages Stephen to “go and get into mischief” (code for “have an affair”). “A marriage ring ought be strong enough to stand occasional other little circles hooked onto it,” Anne declares.
But when her reluctant hubby takes up with her attractive friend Diana (Mikaela Izquierdo) and indeed does seem reinvigorated, Anne tries to fend off crippling bouts of jealousy, with little success. Never mind that she recently had a fling with Dr. Alan Kirby (Todd Cerveris), who has since become a confidante.
Not that infidelity comes naturally to Stephen. His father (Stephen Schnetzer, who valiantly took over for John Hutton due to a sudden schedule conflict) is a strict minister quick to judge lapses in morality, and often makes Stephen revert to the fearful little boy he once was. For his part, Stephen has a devil of a time reconciling his progressive views with his puritanical upbringing.
None of this would fly were it not for a top-notch cast. The matinee-idol handsome Max von Essen, fresh from his Tony-nominated turn in “An American in Paris,” is sublime as the conflicted, emotionally raw Stephen. He brings multiple layers of tenderness to the philandering husband, who is somehow both devoted and selfish at the same time.
No less impressive is Elisabeth Gray as Anne. She is totally convincing as a pragmatic, forward-thinking wife who realizes she is not as liberal-minded as she wants to be.
The Mint is in top form here — the beautiful set of a country house living room and garden is crafted by Carolyn Mraz, and smart period costumes are by Hunter Kaczorowski.
Despite its age, “Yours Unfaithfully” navigates tricky terrain that resonates today, not only in regard to the price of free love, but also the combustibility of father-son relationships, the thrill of being a nonconformist, and the soul-crushing danger of fascists.
“I think the ruling passion in my father’s life was to keep his boys strait,” Stephen says, with a note of despair. “And his chief weapon was fear… He used to tell us a whole lot of downright lies.” A line that, on the night I attended, elicited a burst of nervous laughter from the audience.
YOURS UNFAITHFULLY | Mint Theater Company | Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Feb. 18: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $65 at MintTheater.org or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with two intermissions