NEW YORK CITY | Christian Campbell (whom you may know as Richard Brune from “True Detective” Season 2) headlines a promising Off-Broadway stage cast in a rare revival of a play by a British comic talent.
Starting August 22nd, Campbell joins Brenda Meaney, Ned Noyes, Michael Frederic, Douglas Rees, Clemmie Evans, and Kelly McCready.
Who does this new staging matter?
“One day soon, perhaps, (someone) may discover the true metal latent in the work of Harold Chapin, retrieve it from the limbo in which it has for too long now been sunk, and belatedly present a rare, distinctive, wholly British comic talent to a new public which would certainly and joyously appreciate it.” That’s a quote from The Stage, circa 1957.
In honor of the centenary of Harold Chapin’s heroic death on the battlefield in 1915, Mint Theater’s artistic director puts forward his play, entitled The New Morality as Chapin’s finest comedic achievement — which remained un-produced until 1920.
Eventually it was offered for two performances in London by the newly revived ‘Play Actors,’ a troupe dedicated to promoting its members and introducing new work. “Seeing that the Play Actors, who have just resumed operations after a long enforced silence, brought out as many as seven of the plays of the late Harold Chapin, it was appropriate enough that they should choose a hitherto unperformed piece by that thoughtful and brilliant dramatist,” reported The Stage, calling the play “witty and sparkling.”
Christian Campbell is a superb actor and a gorgeous spirit. He should be a bigger Hollywood star, but for many lonely hearts in Gotham City, he is still best known for playing the role of Gabriel in the contemporary gay film classic Trick opposite Tori Spelling. He also played the lead character of Jimmy Harper in the original Los Angeles and Off-Broadway productions of Reefer Madness: The Musical and in the Showtime television adaptation, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, opposite his sister Neve Campbell.
The New Morality takes us aboard a houseboat on a fashionable reach of the Thames in 1911, the hottest summer on record. Betty Jones has been simmering for weeks, watching her husband make an ass of himself by lavishing attention on their neighbor, Muriel Wister. Betty, “an amazing mixture of spitfire, penitent and hussy,” finally boils over and tells Muriel exactly what she thinks of her—using bad language. Chapin’s “most delicious of light comedies” tells the story of Mr. Wister’s pursuit of an apology on behalf of his wife, and Betty’s absolute refusal to oblige.
Harold Chapin was born in Brooklyn in 1886, the son of American actress, playwright, and suffragette Alice Chapin. Alice divorced in 1888 and expatriated with her son to London, where she nurtured his interest in the theater. Harold made his stage debut at the age of seven in Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford-on-Avon.
By 1910 he was a rising star, more interested in directing and writing than acting. He had numerous one-acts and three full-length plays produced between 1910 and 1914. Then he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corp, just after war was declared in England. Chapin died on the battlefield in 1915 at the age of 29, leaving behind a wife, a four-year old son, and one play that he never saw performed.
“The bullet which found its billet while Harold Chapin was acting as a stretcher-bearer in France did a bad day’s work for the British drama, for nobody has quite filled the niche which that brilliant young dramatist had made for himself,” The Times wrote.
Not only did critics lament the loss to the English theatre when Chapin died, they also bemoaned the lack of perception among producers in London.
“A play that ought to be snapped up by a manager and given a run,” wrote The Illustrated London News. “It must be true that the taste for comedy, which is an educated taste, has very nearly disappeared from London,” St. John Ervine quipped in The Guardian. “But it will, no doubt, come back again; and when it does this play will have its day.”
While waiting for a London manager, The New Morality played in New York in 1921. The New York Times found it “piquant and pleasing” but it only played a handful of matinees, unable to find a theater for a proper run. Finally, in 1925, it had a well received London revival, followed by some regional success—but this delicate and charming comedy with “a real idea as the basis” has never received its proper due.
“The verve and sparkle, satirical bite and civilized impact of a 20th-century minor masterpiece,” wrote Bennitt Gardiner, a columnist for The Stage (1957), in an impassioned piece under the headline “Why Not Revive Harold Chapin’s Plays?” Gardiner expressed bafflement over “the long total eclipse of the plays of Harold Chapin,” especially The New Morality, which “has a dazzling lucidity, shrewd depths of intelligence and satirical wit with one superb Shavian ‘big’ speech clearly expressive of the author’s personal vision, which entitles it to a permanent niche in the repertory of English high comedy.” — rgener
Performances take place on the Third Floor of 311 West 43rd Street. Tickets are available by calling the Mint box office toll-free at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.minttheater.org where you can also see video, photos, and more.