The Skin Game
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 7, 2005
The Skin Game, written in 1920 and being given its first New York performance in a very long time by the Mint Theater, is an old-fashioned morality play wrapped around an old-fashioned melodrama. Neither of those titles should be taken as anything but complimentary, mind you: soap operas about the tribulations of rich people are great and popular fodder, and this one is especially skillful; and the moral that playwright John Galsworthy leaves us with—that so-called principles amount to little when they lead to disregard for human decency and integrity—is nothing if not resoundingly relevant.
The plot concerns two wealthy families, neighbors in a country town in England, whose enmity evolves into a blood feud. The Hillcrists have lived here for centuries (since the time of Elizabeth I, one of them casually remarks); they're lords of the manor, so to speak, endowed with a sense of entitlement and the concomitant spirit of responsibility known as noblesse oblige. At present, the family consists of Jack, the patriarch; his imperious wife Amy; and their 19-year-old daughter Jill, a bright, horsy sort who will indulge from time to time in free thinking. The Hillcrists live in elegance and splendor but they're not as rich as they once were: Jack was forced, some years ago, to sell the tenants' cottages to the upstart Hornblower. As the play begins, word comes that the Hillcrists' view is imminently threatened by their neighbor's desire to purchase an adjacent piece of property, where he intends to erect some unsightly additions to his pottery works.
I need to introduce you to the Hornblowers now: in addition to the father, a wealthy self-made industrialist, they include his two sons Charles and Rolf, and Charles's wife Chloe. Charles is as gruff and grasping as his dad, but Rolf is more sensitive; like the Hillcrists' Jill, he hates that the two families are feuding (and indeed we sense that he would like to be friends, or more than that, with the comely Jill).
The families' bitter rivalry would appear to have its roots in snobbery, pure and simple: Mrs. Hillcrist has snubbed Chloe at every occasion, and is unremittingly opposed to socializing with or even acknowledging "those people." But Hornblower occasionally lets slip another element of the truth, which is that economy is the guiding principle here: his potteries—unattractive as they are—have brought a prosperity to the region that the Hillcrists' can't possibly match. There's a Darwinian struggle underlying the social one; Galsworthy focuses on the latter, but the implications of the former are unavoidable to a viewer of this play in 2005.
At an auction, Hillcrist tries to defend his way of life by preventing Hornblower from buying the contested bit of property, but ultimately he lacks the funds to do so. Whereupon, Mrs. Hillcrist takes command, plotting a far more ruthless attack. It seems that she has certain information about Hornblower's daughter-in-law Chloe that would simply ruin the family. Will she use what she knows to get back the land and uphold the family's cherished way of life? And if so, at what cost?
I won't divulge more, because though the incriminating fact turns out to be breathtakingly quaint, much of the fun of The Skin Game comes from Galsworthy's slow and determined tease of the audience as he sensationally reveals it. And the coda that follows, ending the play, is entirely foreseeable but absolutely necessary. Suffice to say that the character assassination proves a most unsatisfactory plan for all concerned.
Under Eleanor Reissa's steady directorial hand, the plot unfolds with stately elegance. The ensemble is, with just a couple of exceptions, very evenly matched, providing a nice unity of style and concept that serves the piece well. Particularly interesting performances are given by Monique Fowler who, as Mrs. Hillcrist, very firmly establishes the manner and custom of a class far too used to having its own way, for whom appropriate ends always justify ruthless means; John C. Vennema as her husband, a man whose conscience and reason have perhaps been spoiled by too much privilege; and James Gale as Hornblower, who makes that dangerous fellow more even-handed and sympathetic than might seem possible.
Reissa and Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank should be especially proud of their play's genuinely impressive set, by Vicki R. Davis, a well-appointed study in the Hillcrist house that transforms, via folding panels and other architectural magic, into an auction room and Chloe's spare but luxurious boudoir. Sliding panels at the front create a lovely "show curtain" framing each of the acts.
Tracy Christiansen's period costumes—lots of them, for the women—also contribute nicely to the ambience.
The Skin Game proves a gripping and satisfying entertainment: there's always pleasure to be had in indulging our vicarious moral superiority to people who fancy themselves our "betters." (And for those in the audience who would view themselves, socio-economically speaking, as equal to the Hillcrists and Hornblowers, one hopes there is a life lesson to be gleaned instead.) I was struck by the very Englishness of the piece: in an American play written in 1920, Hornblower would have been the unabashed hero, flouting and twitting the lazy aristocrats at every step.
The Mint has once again provided us with a clear-eyed look at another time and place, one whose resonances in our own should not be overlooked.