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The Charity That Began At Home, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
The Charity That Began at Home

Men don't change. They repent but they don't change
--- Hugh Verreker, a young man whose engagement to an idealistic young heiress is buoyed by her plans to change him so that he will prefer being charitable to simply enjoying himself.

The Mint's artistic director, Jonathan Bank, has once again gone fishing in that vast reservoir of plays produced far away and long ago and never to be seen again. This time his catch is one of five plays written by an Englishman named an Englishman named St John Hankin (pronounced "Sin Jin" by his countrymen) whose premature death (he committed suicide at age forty) was lamented by George Bernard Shaw who called him "a most gifted writer of the high comedy of the kind that is a stirring and important criticism of life."

As Shaw admiringly followed Hankin's brief career, he clearly exerted a strong influence on Hankin. Charity has many of the earmarks of Shaw's plays -- a country house setting and a plot driven by debate-like discussions, here aimed at poking fun at society's philanthrophic attitudes.

The story revolves around Lady Denison (Kristin Griffith) and her daughter Margery (Harmony Schuttler) who fall under the spell of Mr. Hylton (Benjamin Howes), a charming minister who has founded a new Church -- the Church of Humanity -- based on an all-out commitment to kindness even if it means sacrificing many personal pleasures. For Lady Denison and Margery that means filling their country estate with house guests who are either too disagreeable, boring, poor, or lacking in social cache (often, all of the above) to be on anyone else's guest list.

During the two week period that the play covers the impoverished bores reign supreme; chief among them a retired general who's a bottomless well of tedious anecdotes (Lee Moore) and two insufferable spinster, one with the apt surname of Horrocks (Michelle Tauber and Alice White).

To provide a plot twist there is one attractive and charming young man who was invited because he's become a social outcast after a scandal that got him booted out of the army. For the rich and noble Margery the penniless, good-time Charlie, whose name happens to be Hugh Verreker (Karl Kenzler), represents the best of both worlds: a chance to marry a man to whom she's attracted and, by converting him to her charitable way of life, doing a good deed for society in the process of pleasing herself. Verreker, though not eager to change, finds pretty Margery (and her fortune) irresistible, and so they become engaged. To turn this romance into a triangle, there's the obvious fact that the virtuous Mr. Hyden would love Margerie to embrace him as well as his principles.

The Charity That Began at Home plays out as an interesting theatrical artifact with some witty and insightful dialogue. But it's not on a par with Shaw's best country house comedies and discussion plays. Neither is it as strong as the Mint's biggest hit from the Edwardian era, The Voysey Inheritance which was also directed by Gus Kaikkonen. The chief problem is that the well-intentioned hostess and her daughter, while not disagreeable, are quite predictable and not really more interesting than their guests.

Krisin Griffith is suitably pretty and somewhat ditzy (fans of old B-movie flicks will be reminded of Billie Burke). Harmony Schuttler is an appealingly sincere Margery, and the same can be said of Benjamin Howe's Hylton and Karl Kenzler's Verreker. But the only character who really lights a fire under this rather plodding revival is Becky London as Lady Denison's practical, acid-tongued sister-in-law, Mrs. Eversleigh. Her opinions regarding her sister-in-law's willingness to put up with disagreeable people in the interests of kindness are as close as we come to Wildean wit, as when she respond's to Hylton's "Usen't we to be taught that it was our duty to love our enemies?" with " Yes, But only on Sunday"

A subplot involving a weepy pregnant maid (Pauline Tully) and an inconveniently married butler (Troy Schremmer playing the part as if this were an Agatha Christie mystery) further tests Lady Denison's home-based charity. Instead of invigorating the comedy, however, it merely serves to stretch the four acts (with one break in the middle) to a meandering two hours and forty-five minutes.

Mr. Kaikkonen and his design staff have competently evoked the Edwardian period though it's obvious to this once expert crocheter that neither he or anyone involved with the show knows how to crochet; else the ladies of the manor would have been taught to properly hold a crochet hook as they work on some tedious crochet strips as yet another demonstration of their willingness to put good deeds before pleasure. This minor quibble could easily have been avoided by excision. In fact, tightning overall would have been welcome, especially during the endlessly drawn out last scene. Too bad that Mr. Kaikkonen didn't borrow a leaf from St. John Hankin's most popular published work, a series of new last acts for well known plays published in Punch , to dish up a more punchy finale.

Written by St John Hankin
Directed by Gus Kaikkonen
Cast: Christopher Franciosa, Kristin Griffith, Benjamin Howes, Karl Kenzler, Becky London, Lee Moore, Troy Schremmer, Harmony Schuttler, Michele Tauber, Pauline Tully, Bruce Ward, and Alice White.
Set Design: Charles F. Morgan
Costume Design: Henry Shaffer
Lighting Design: William Armstrong
Original Music: Ellen Mandel:
Dialect Coach: Amy Stoller
Prop specialist: Judi Guralnick
Running time: 2 and 3/4 hours, includes one 10-minute intermission.-
Mint at 311 West 43rd (8/9th Aves) 212/315-0231 or web site
9/27/02-10/27/02; opening 10/07/02
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 3rd performance.
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