Nobody, not even Lincoln Center, offers more bang-for-buck subscriber services than the Mint. Under the eye of a.d. Jonathan Bank, the mighty little company consistently unearths forgotten plays of topical interest and mounts smart productions with pro players. On its shoestring budget, enterprising troupe also extends terrific ancillary services, from helpful dramaturgical notes in the program to books and scripts in the vest-pocket lobby, along with post-perf discussions led by knowledgeable academics. Currently getting the full treatment: “The Madras House,” Harley Granville-Barker’s penetrating 1909 social drama about behind-the-scenes labor conditions in a fashionable London department store.
Lacking the laser vision David Mamet applied to another Granville-Barker problem play, “The Voysey Inheritance,” helmer Gus Kaikkonen’s working script fumbles with the ornate background material that the playwright heaps on to establish his social setting. But after wading through preliminary scenes crowded with secondary characters who could easily be dispensed with, this absorbing drama gets down to the business of storytelling.
At issue is what’s to become of Madras House, the chic London fashion emporium established by visionary designer Constantine Madras (George Morfogen) before he abandoned his family, embraced Islam and ran off to Iraq to set up a more unorthodox household.
Following Constantine’s defection, the running of the family business fell to his brother-in-law and partner Henry Huxtable (Jonathan Hogan). But Huxtable has grown too ill to carry on, and Constantine’s son Philip (Thomas Hammond), now in charge, wants to accept the buyout offer of American entrepreneur Eustace Perrin State (Ross Bickell).
The deal is on the table and the principals are itching to sign. But anything can happen once Constantine, his eccentricities fulsomely realized here by Morfogen, returns to London to sign the papers.
Between the discursive setup and the more dramatically focused resolution of this business, Granville-Barker masterfully engineers several gripping scenes that collectively reveal both the interior workings of a major department and the private affairs of the family that runs it.
Roberta Maxwell, in the thankless role of Amelia Madras, makes the most out of the demeaning domestic reunion when the errant Constantine finally returns home, only to imperiously dismiss the anguish of his socially humiliated and still bitter wife. Lisa Bostnar and Mark L. Montgomery are highly watchable in flirtatious encounters involving Philip’s insightful wife and his dense best friend.
But the scenes that really grab the attention are those in which progressive-minded Philip, played with well-mannered authority and just the right amount of introspection by Hammond, has to confront the day-to-day crises involved in operating a giant department store. Sparks really fly in a confrontation between a liberated young shopgirl, played with spirit by Mary Bacon, and the gorgon-like headmistress who spits fire, in Laurie Kennedy’s perf, when she discovers the girl is not only pregnant, but quite proud and unapologetic about it.
Amy Stoller’s well-researched program notes are especially helpful in picking up Granville-Barker’s imbedded criticisms of this Edwardian period in England’s mercantile history, when hundreds of shop workers lived and worked under the same roof — sometimes for 80 hours a week — for low pay, no benefits and with the specter of the workhouse hanging over their heads. In the “Upstairs/Downstairs” tradition of playwriting, Granville-Barker kept his own head perfectly balanced.