Every now and then it’s refreshing to turn on the time travel clock and return to what we then called “civilization” circa 1920. You know, after the war to end all wars, before the jazz babies really became the rockers of their day, when “civilized” meant well-spoken, when dry humor was considered humor’s most unpolluted form, when suit and tie for the gents, and when completely impractical gowns for the ladies were about to be shortened to expose their ankles, calves, and thighs.
It was the decade that A.A. Milne spent delivering novels, poems, and plays one after another to the West End and ultimately to Broadway. Winnie the Pooh established him as a poet who catered to children, and Mr. Pim Passes By gave him added credentials as a playwright. He enjoyed writing, and moved from genre to genre, earning further kudos for more poems, novels, and plays. In 1922 he delivered The Lucky One but it managed a skimpy run of 40 performances. Later, the Theatre Guild revived it; and it proved slightly more popular, this time with a run of 72 performances. But word of mouth was strong on “Winnie” (a bear), and it and several other characters became toys that are sold even today. Mr. Milne lived until 1956; he disliked fame and chose to withdraw from center stage during his final years.
Mint Theater Company, under the artistic control of Jonathan Bank, has done much to bring early and mostly forgotten works to the fore; in many cases rediscovering obscure writers and their plays. The Lucky One is a good example which should be seen by all who cherish the pre-golden age basket of plays that still resonate over the issues of their day.
One can sense the oncoming change in those issues. Racism, sexism, feminism, and many other “isms” are on the horizon, but rarely did the 1920s deal with them. This relic from that era deals with favoritism within families and lack of understanding for anything that was considered outside the very tight borders of correctness. The “lucky one” here is Gerald Farringdon who was born and raised in an aristocratic British family; and he is indeed one who has fulfilled his early promise as a bright student, now a charming member of the diplomatic corps. His elder brother Bob has never recovered from losing his place as the heir apparent, for from the start he felt that Gerald had all the breaks he never got. They include good looks, an alert mind, an adaptability to social mores, and his ability to have all the ladies in his orbit anxious to have at him.
One such, Miss Pamela Carey, is the loving friend of Bob’s (the only one he’s got) but good sense has prompted her to accept Gerald’s proposal to wed, though her feelings for him are tempered by reason, not emotion. Thomas Todd, a young golfing companion, is part of his orbit as is Henry Wentworth, another friend. His parents, Sir and Lady Farringdon, favor him too, but they love Bob as well. Miss Farringdon, his great Aunt, is wise and warm to both her great nephews, but she is far more understanding of Bob’s inferior feelings about himself than are any of the others. “Poor Bob” seems to seep into every conversation about the elder brother and though he doesn’t often hear that epithet, he senses that’s what everyone thinks of him. No wonder, as he feels the same way.
Out of the divisive nature of the brothers’ relationship, Mr. Milne is marvelous at probing ever so delicately but precisely into the needs each character reveals as the play progresses between June and November in what was once a three act play, now condensed to two by the Mint company.
Mr. Milne has successfully mined humor from the relationship between young and spry Thomas Todd and the young and spry Letty Herbert who give new meaning to the “Anyone for tennis?” crowd, which in this play is the “Anyone for Golf?” group. Great Aunt Miss Farringdon is played deliciously by Cynthia Harris, making her debut at the Mint, but a Founding Member of the similar TACT company, where she has been co-Artistic Director for 21 years. Her credits include dozens of New York appearances topped perhaps by her standout performance in Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers, one of the 46 other plays in which she appeared at her home base. One would love to see her as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals or Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, but it’s good to have her back onstage in this small but juicy role at the Mint.
Robert David Grant brings genial charm to Gerald, the younger brother, and manages to make him appealing, if a little transparent, as “the lucky one.” Ari Brand has chosen to play Bob as an immature loser, but I felt empathy for him anyway. The advice Gerald gives him when a foolish negligence brings him up against the law and a possible prison term, reveals more about Gerald than Bob. Their last act confrontation scene is a corker, and the actors and the playwright deliver it beautifully. Jesse Marchese has directed the play with an open hand, making good use of the attractive set designed by Vicki R. Davis, and his actors all look comfortable in Stephanie Klapper’s excellent period clothes.
One caveat about the set: the second of three acts is set in a private hotel in Dover Street in London. The only accommodation to this change involved a maid changing six vases of flowers, but until I checked the program I had no idea we’d moved from Sir James Farringdon’s house in the country to the private hotel. Perhaps a budgetary problem, but a tad confusing. However, even the men in suits of expensive looking fabrics exude the attention men paid to their outfits a century ago as did the women, all corseted and gowned (except Ms. Letty, who looked very jazzy, an early flapper).
I found myself surprisingly held by this seemingly light comedy with a solid foundation of irony underneath it. With the proper pace and impeccable acting to deliver its age old charms, The Lucky One reminds us that craft was once not a derogatory term: that even a light offering, when played with style, could send one out into the night with much to think about and reflect upon.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Lucky One plays through June 25, 2017, at Mint Theater Company performing at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row – 410 West 42nd Street, in New York, NY. For tickets, call Telecharge at (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.