The Madras House
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 13, 2007
The Madras House, written by Harley Granville-Barker almost a century ago, has not been seen in New York City since its premiere here in 1921. The Mint Theater Company, who brought Granville-Barker's more pointed work The Voysey Inheritance to New Yorkers' attention a few years back, has now mounted a sumptuous revival of this play. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen (who also helmed Voysey), this production features a gorgeous set by Charles Morgan, elegantly detailed, period-appropriate costumes by Clint Ramos, and an enormously accomplished cast led by consummate pros George Morfogen, Jonathan Hogan, Laurie Kennedy, and Roberta Maxwell, and featuring the superb Thomas M. Hammond as the play's protagonist and Mint favorite Lisa Bostnar, radiant and commanding as ever as his strong-minded wife. It's a superlative achievement in every department. But I do have one or two qualms about the play itself.
To begin, though, a synopsis—which is difficult, because The Madras House is as sprawling a play as you can imagine. Its primary focus is on Philip Madras, son of the founder of a prosperous London ladies' clothing house (the firm gives the play its title). At the moment, Philip is dealing with three significant life issues: first, he's contemplating a political career, making a run for city council; second, he's about to sell the family business to an American investor; and third (and probably most cataclysmic), his father, Constantine, has returned to England after many years away. Madras père is ostensibly here to ratify the sale of the store, but there's even more pressing business to resolve with his estranged wife, Amelia, whom he has not seen in some 30 years.
Philip must also deal with a personnel matter at his company. A young woman named Marion Yates, who "lives in" (i.e., she resides in a dormitory provided by the firm), has become pregnant, and a bit of a scandal has erupted after her forewoman, a stern puritanical type named Miss Chancellor, saw her kissing a married co-worker.
And I've really only just scratched the surface: The Madras House rambles through four acts, dipping into these storylines plus several lesser ones, all the while providing a forum, very much in the manner of a play by Shaw, for a variety of strongly articulated opinions about politics, economics, society, and other subjects to be spouted by this or that character. Granville-Barker seems much more interested in giving his characters that forum than in making them behave like credible people, in fact; the two acts that are set in places of business in particular present situations that are hard to swallow, as Philip and his colleagues pontificate around meeting tables rather than conduct actual meetings.
Two of the play's characters troubled me greatly. One is a minor player—a swishy couturier decked out for all the world like Oscar Wilde and portrayed as irredeemably and stereotypically effeminate by Kraig Swartz. In 2007 such a characterization feels, at least to me, as out of place as Franklin Pangborn would (or should). The other is Constantine Madras himself, who is a thoroughly reprehensible creature; his history, we learn, is one of constant philandering, until he moved to Arabia, where he has now become a "Mohammedan," apparently (and, as far as I could discern, only) so that he might maintain a harem. This came across as wildly inappropriate: as damningly anti-Islam as Merchant of Venice is anti-Jew. I'm not sure that I left convinced that there is enough of merit elsewhere in the play to compensate for these disturbingly jarring components, even granting that the thing is a century old.
So I can't say that I admire the play, but I have nothing but respect for the splendid production that the Mint has given it. In addition to the aforementioned actors, I should single out Mary Bacon, who is a fine, feisty Marion Yates, and Angela Reed, every bit her match as the wife of her alleged paramour. Kaikkonen's staging is brisk and smooth, and the production values are glorious. At nearly three hours in length, The Madras House makes for a sometimes long sit, but it's been faithfully reproduced in high style.