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Set on a houseboat that's floating in the Thames in 1911, it uses wry epigrams, a feisty heroine, and a drunken dinner party scene to make a progressive argument about the social role of women. Though playwright Harold Chapin died in 1915, it's easy to imagine his insights being used as rebuttals against certain political candidates who have recently made headlines for taking cheap shots at the ladies.
"Historically, what was going on in 1911 is kind of what we're dealing with now," says cast member Christian Campbell. "It was a time of a lot of wealth in very few people's pockets, and just like then, we're dealing with women's issues that seem like they ought to have been resolved already."
Of course, the fact that we're still fighting for full gender equality might not have surprised Chapin very much. The idea that it's hard for anyone to change is one of the driving forces of his comedy.
To wit: The play begins immediately after a well-to-do woman named Betty Jones has told her neighbor what she thinks of her. Apparently, Betty was so loud that the entire river heard her, and her language was so coarse that people's ears might never be the same. This promises to be a royal scandal and may even lead to a libel suit, so almost everyone around Betty tries to convince her to apologize. Or else they try to blame her behavior on the heat – the kind of thing that men are convinced makes a fragile little lady lose her composure.
Eventually, though, it becomes clear that Betty has much more sophisticated reasons for her behavior (and for her refusal to apologize). But even if she convinces her friends and family of her position, can she convince a society that might gossip about her or throw her in jail? Can everyone be persuaded to take Betty more seriously?
Some characters adamantly believe that she is morally superior, but her brother Geoffrey Belasis (played by Campbell) isn't sure that matters. And it's his arguments that suggest the playwright wouldn't be shocked to learn the case for equality is still being fought.
"Belasis is there looking at the absurdity of all of it," says Campbell. "He's sort of the cynical side [of the play]. He lays out a thesis that says, 'After everything I've seen, we're going nowhere, folks. We may as well stick to our guns and not try to move at all.'"
In other words, he doesn't think there's any point in trying to make people understand Betty's behavior as an expression of her moral sense. Better to tell everyone she got overheated or blame her language on the evils of urban life. "That is a political stance coming out of cynicism that man does not progress, and therefore we must stay with the status quo," Campbell says. "Because if we don't, we're going to fall back into disorganization and people are just going to murder each other."
Geoffrey Belasis could be running on a conservative ticket in 2016. "But I don't think Harold Chapin was being prescient," Campbell says. "He was saying, 'We keep repeating history over and over and over.' And he was right."
Mark Blankenship is the editor-in-chief of TDF Stages. Follow him at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC
Photos by Richard Termine. Top photo, L to R: Brenda Meaney, Christian Campbell, and Michael Frederic.
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