Ah, thank goodness for the Mint Theater Company. Amid all the world’s problems, the Mint has been a breath of a fresh air for more than two decades, offering exquisitely rendered productions of long-forgotten works by little-known playwrights under the leadership of producing artistic director Jonathan Bank. The troupe has now followed up its Drama Desk-nominated Hindle Wakes with the impeccably staged Conflict, an exceptional 1925 romantic political tale by British character actor, dramatist, and social reformer Miles Malleson, whose Yours Unfaithfully was given the superb Mint treatment last year. The play is set in 1920s London, where the upstart Labour Party is trying to make inroads against the Conservatives in the upcoming elections. Jessie Shelton stars as Lady Dare Bellingdon, a highly privileged young woman on the verge of becoming independent, a carefree spirit who abhors boredom and is determined to make her own choices instead of following convention and doing what is expected of her class and gender. Her stern father, the very wealthy Lord Bellingdon (Graeme Malcolm), approves of her relationship with Major Sir Ronald Clive, DSO (Jeremy Beck), a straightforward, overly formal military hero who is running for Parliament and wants to marry Dare, who is not exactly ready to settle down yet.
One evening they are interrupted by the appearance of Tom Smith (Jeremy Beck), a beggar with a rather pathetic tale to tell, one that Lord Bellingdon isn’t buying. “I don’t want to mock or sneer. It was wrong of me if I seemed to. I hope I’m not hard-hearted; but I’m hard-headed,” the rich man says. “I don’t believe a man falls through society — to the bottom, as you’ve done — without something in himself to drag him down.” Smith responds, “That’s a fine thing for a man to say who’s at the top. By God, it shows a complacency, a self-satisfaction, that’s almost splendid. You must be damn pleased with yourself.” Lord Bellingdon and Clive offer him food, whiskey, and cash and send him on his way, but they and Dare are surprised by what they see when he returns eighteen months later, with quite another tale to tell.
Directed with wit and verve by Jenn Thompson (Women without Men, Abundance), Conflict never descends into preachy pablum as it explores the socioeconomic and cultural differences among rich and poor, conservative and liberal, male and female in post-WWI England. Though written nearly a century ago — it was also adapted into the 1931 film The Woman Between — the play is very much of today as the personal gets very political, and the political gets very personal, especially as so many twenty-first-century Americans use party affiliation and faith (or lack thereof) in the current government to help determine their friends and lovers, on social media and in real life. As is Mint tradition, the set, by John McDermott, is utterly lovely, a fancy drawing room with a garden; a later scene in Smith’s hovel of a bedroom further differentiates the haves from the have-nots, as does Martha Hally’s costume finery. Beck (Hindle Wakes, The Cocktail Party) and Clarke (Private Lives, Baskerville) excel as rivals in more ways than one, Malcolm (Equus, Mary Broome) plays Lord Bellingdon with delicious relish, his mustache and eyebrows practically a character unto themselves, while Jasmin Walker (Avenue Q, Only Children) makes the most of her small role as Mrs. Tremayne, a merry widow who encourages Dare to live her life the way she wants to, unbound by tradition. (The cast also features James Prendergast as Daniells, the Bellingdons’ much-put-upon butler, and Amelia White as Mrs. Robinson, Smith’s nosy landlady.)
“It’s not loving him I’m bothering about — it’s marrying him,” Dare tells Mrs. Tremayne about Clive. “I don’t want my marriage to be a sort of brown-paper parcel in which I wrap up my romance, and seal it and say ‘That’s that.’ . . . I want my marriage to be . . . something more.” A high-minded socialite and good-time girl slowly becoming woke, Lady Dare is portrayed magnificently by Shelton (Hadestown, The Skin of Our Teeth) with an intoxicating hope that life can get better, for everyone. Delivered by a company that needs to be on your radar if it isn’t already, Conflict is an elegant and precise work that demands, and is more than worthy of, close attention, filled with myriad small touches that almost pass you by as you get caught up in its all-too-relevant story of strange bedfellows indeed.