By Stanford Friedman
Wedded bliss. Marital splendor. Joyful union. Matrimony hath many the happy descriptor. But, in 1918, for a budding 18-year-old playwright named Noël Coward, marriage was The Rat Trap.
This bleak tale of love gone wrong from a writer who will become famous for farce is instructive in several ways. As an indicator of things to come, it does offer some comedic twists and a healthy dose of witty repartee (Of course, what doesn’t sound witty when spoken in a clipped British accent?). As an historical work, it comments on the state of women’s rights in the midst of Britain’s suffrage movement while starkly displaying the limited choices for a wife in an unhappy relationship. And as an evening of entertainment, the Mint Theater Company, aided by an excellent cast, once again demonstrates its skill in polishing a period piece to the brightest shine that the material will allow.
The play is presented in four short acts, the first being a study in foreshadowing. It is the eve of Sheila (Sarin Monae West) and Keld’s (James Evans) wedding and the happy couple are toasting their good fortune along with Sheila’s soon to be ex-flatmate, the wise and independent Olive (Elisabeth Gray). Sheila is an aspiring novelist and Keld is an ambitious playwright and Olive knows just what that means. She warns her friend, “No two people of your intellectual abilities could live together for long without getting on one another’s nerves.” If that were not enough, neighbors Naomi (Heloise Lowenthal, ethereal) and Edmund (Ramzi Khalaf, zany) drop by to espouse their Bohemian philosophy of free love, unfettered by the “chains of matrimony.” But Sheila is having none of it, “I shall probably go through hell later on, but I shall love him, love him, love him, to the last day of my life.”
Act Two finds the couple, six months later, living an uncomfortable life in a comfortable London house, joined by a comically gruff housekeeper named Burrage (Cynthia Mace). Keld’s first play is on the brink of production and its lead actress, Ruby (Claire Saunders) comes by to flirt, stoking the already palpable tension in the air. Keld has his own private study, complete with typewriter, while Sheila must toil away, in pencil, making little progress on her novel. The couple quarrel with a practiced intensity that grows ever-more heated, with Burrage sporadically popping in to deescalate the situation. Their bickering reaches an ugly climax that brings a gasp from the audience and Sheila finally sees the light, “It’s come true; we’re like two rats in a trap, fighting, fighting, fighting.”
Act Three jumps ahead a full year. Keld has become a smashing success and Sheila a broken woman. He reads reviews of his latest hit play, but only the paragraphs that are about him, while she has surrendered her writing dreams in favor of domestic duties, keeping the peace if quietly losing her ability to find happiness. With a boost from Olive and a shove from Ruby, Sheila realizes the limitations of love and shuts a door between her and Keld. The final act, which serves up a depressing surprise and a quick curtain, will put her back in Keld’s arms but with nothing but doom on the horizon.
Under the thoughtful direction of Alexander Lass, Evans pulls off the neat trick of transitioning Keld from a likable suitor to an insufferable cad who is also a man-child, while West provides a knockout performance endowing Sheila with hopefulness and grit in her pivot from lover to lost soul, while never over-reaching. Mace brings perfect timing and physicality to her wonderful Burrage, Saunders’ Ruby is delightful to hate, and who could not fall in love with Gray’s caring and brainy Olive, even if she would undoubtedly fail to reciprocate.
The Rat Trap – By Noël Coward; directed by Alexander Lass.
WITH: James Evans (Keld), Elisabeth Gray (Olive), Ramzi Khalaf (Edmund), Heloise Lowenthal (Naomi), Cynthia Mace (Burrage), Claire Saunders (Ruby), and Sarin Monae West (Sheila).
Scenic design by Vicki R. Davis, costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski, lighting by Christian DeAngelis, sound design by Bill Toles. Mint Theater Company at New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St., 212.581.1212, https://minttheater.org/https-minttheater-org-production-the-rat-trap/. Through December 10. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes