NEW YORK – The Mint Theater, an off-Broadway company, located at 311 West 43rd St., off Eighth Avenue, has been doing excellent productions of long-forgotten plays since 1996.
Jonathan Bank, the company’s artistic director, has a logo on his business card that reads, “Lost Plays Found Here.” Mr. Bank’s theatrical treasure trove has included a variety of playwrights, some not known for their theater work, such as critic Harley Granville Barker, and writers Rachel Crothers, D.H. Lawrence and Dawn Powell.
Most of the plays that appear on the Mint Stage have not been presented since their original productions. Mr. Bank finds plays everywhere; in Ireland, he discovered the plays of the late Irish writer Teresa Deevy, whom I had never heard of. He has introduced three of her works to me and to Mint audiences over several seasons. Last winter, he produced John van Druten’s “London Wall,” which never had an American production. “London Wall” turned out to be such a hit that the play was selected to be telecast on WNET’s Channel 13 off-Broadway series “Theater Close-Up.”
Through Oct. 26, the Mint is staging George Kelly’s “The Fatal Weakness” from 1946. A year ago, the theater did an earlier Kelly play, “Philip Goes Forth,” from 1921.
Mr. Kelly (1887-74) was from the Kelly clan of Philadelphia; his niece and godchild was the film actress Grace Kelly, who became the Princess of Monaco. Mr. Kelly got started in the theater as a juvenile actor in vaudeville, where he began writing one-act plays. He achieved big success on Broadway in the early 1920s with three hit plays: “The Torch Bearers” (1921), about little community theater groups whose members think they have talent; “The Show-Off” (1924), his biggest success, a sort of transcript of the life of Aubrey Piper, a blustering loudmouth who gets lucky and goes from being a somewhat comic fool to a family folk hero; and “Craig’s Wife” (1925), about a selfish housewife who would rather have a clean house than friends and family relationships. That one was made into two films, one with Rosalind Russell and the other, titled “Harriet Craig,” with Joan Crawford.
Mr. Kelly’s plays, even the ones not up to his highest level, all have a truthfulness and realism about them. He takes an Ibsen-like look, with a satiric comic edge, at American domestic life during the 1920s, ’30s, and into the early ’40s.
“The Fatal Weakness” was his last Broadway play. It starred a golden actress of stage and film at the time, Ina Claire. The play is not Kelly at his best; once again, it is a domestic drama, and it does have a comic wackiness of the era.
Its heroine, Ollie Espenshade (Kirsten Griffith), could be described as “congenial.” Her “fatal weakness” is that she sees herself as a romantic – I would say she is more of a sentimentalist – who is enamored of attending weddings even if she doesn’t know the bride or groom. You could say she is a bit out of touch with the everyday world.
When we meet her, she is in a bit of a crisis. She has just received a letter telling her that her husband of 28 years, Paul Espenshade (Cliff Bemis), is seeing another woman, an osteopathic doctor. Later, we learn that her name is Dr. Hilton.
When a friend, Mabel Wentz (Cynthia Darlow), arrives into Ollie’s elegant living room, Ollie tells her about her situation. Mabel wants to know if she has seen any changes in her husband’s behavior. Ollie says he whistles more and has a skip in his walk. He also is out some evenings and plays handball at the country club every Saturday.
Mrs. Wentz does have an idea. She is willing to call a friend, Minerva Nichols, to do some spying on and trailing of Ollie’s husband. We are told Minerva has a car and, I guess, has nothing better to do. To me, Minerva was a funny off-stage invention that only playwright Kelly could think of, though lots of playwrights have used off-stage characters. Shakespeare used quite a few, like Lady Macbeth’s obscure child, the Nurse’s deceased husband in “Romeo and Juliet,” and Desdemona’s mother’s maid Barbara in “Othello.” Desdemona’s mother’s maid Barbara taught her the “Willow Song.”
Ollie’s daughter Penny (Victoria Mack) is having marital problems, too. Ollie is clear-headed when she advises her daughter not to leave her husband, but to remember how happy she was four years ago when she married him.
It turns out that Paul never understood Ollie. She always seemed like such an ideal of romance that no man, much less Paul, was good enough for her.
Some months later, in the play’s last scene, on a Saturday afternoon when Paul and Dr. Hilton are getting married, Ollie’s “fatal weakness” hits her again. She rationalizes that Paul would want her at his marriage ceremony. She then recites a poem he recently quoted about her romanticism. Then she and Mrs. Wentz are off to the wedding.
It’s a play that doesn’t completely jell, but the ensemble the Mint has assembled makes Kelly’s idiosyncrasies seem palatable and not that farfetched. It’s another playwriting curio that only the Mint could carry off.
Information about the Mint is available at www.minttheater.org as well as on Twitter @MintTheaterCo and Facebook.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.