What the Public Wants

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Photo Source: Richard Termine

According to a press release, Arnold Bennett's 1909 comedy about London tabloid journalism, though obscure here in America, has been revived numerous times in England, always to huzzahs for how topical it remains. Alas, Mint Theater Company's strained production reveals just the opposite. Time has long since passed by this artificial broadside against the evils of indulging the people's "low" taste. Indeed, in the age of the Internet, when the public can self-satisfy its hungers through tweets, blogs, videos, and chat rooms, "What the Public Wants" seems positively irrelevant.

Sir Charles Worgan, of solid middle-class origins, has parlayed a 10,000-pound inheritance into a multimillion-pound empire of newspapers and magazines, each catering to a different constituency but all aimed at the hoi polloi. Charles tailors his content to his readership, describing himself as a "merchant" determined to provide "what the public wants." Nevertheless, he chafes at not being taken seriously by the intelligentsia. Into his orbit come his younger brother, Francis, suddenly returned to London after 19 years abroad finding himself, and Emily Vernon, a childhood friend who is now a penniless widow making her living as an actor. Their presence catalyzes Charles' insecurities. Soon he is bankrolling an artsy theater company, donating funds to Oxford University, and proposing marriage to Emily. But when he takes his fiancée back to their hometown of Bursley—which Charles describes as "a hole" and rarely visits—for a family dinner in her honor, moralities soon clash, putting the marriage in jeopardy. Ultimately, the amoral magnate is left with nothing but his profits to keep him warm.

The first problem is that Charles is the villain of the piece, but he's also the only interesting character. Further, the sin for which he is cast out is awfully piddling: One of his newspapers is running a series in which famous crimes of the past are recounted in all their gory detail. Unfortunately, the next case slated for publication tangentially involves Charles' mother's best friend, the widowed Mrs. Downes, who also just happens to be a guest at that family dinner. Revisiting the case won't hurt her personally, but it will reflect badly upon the Downes family name. This is reactionary Edwardian sentimentality at its finest and impossible to take seriously as a reason for moral condemnation.

Director Matthew Arbour keeps the pace up, but he's unable to find any kind of persuasive through-line, no doubt because Bennett, to dramatize his ideas, lards his episodic script with minor characters who contribute little to the central story. Further, Arbour has made the baffling and highly distracting decision to play this very English play with American accents, robbing Bennett's dialogue of its intrinsic sounds and cadences. No actor should ever be asked to deliver a line such as "Charles must be gone right bang off his chump!" in flat American speech. Perhaps Arbour thought it would make the proceedings seem more universal and less twee, but the result only emphasizes the writing's artificiality.

Rob Breckenridge, as Charles, fares best, charismatic in emphasizing the character's intelligence, surprising modesty, and refreshing lack of mawkish virtue. As Francis, Marc Vietor affects an intriguing tinge of effeteness and seems to be longing desperately to use that forsworn accent, but he can't make Francis into more than a foil. Ellen Adair gives Emily charm, wit, and spunk, but she's stymied by the character's sudden romantic reversal. Five other actors play nine smaller roles professionally but without inspiration.

Roger Hanna's set, built upon concentric arches, is handsome, but the decision to have Charles push away the walls of his moralistic brother's drawing room to change the set back to the newspaper office is not only a jarring stylistic breach but also much too obvious. But then, so is Bennett's play.

Presented by and at Mint Theater Company, 311 W. 43rd St., 3rd floor, NYC. Jan. 27–March 13. Tue.–Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. (Additional performance Mon., Feb. 7, 7 p.m.) (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, www.theatermania.com, or www.minttheater.org. Casting by Stuart Howard, Amy Schecter, and Paul Hardt.