George Morfogen, Roberta Maxwell and Thomas M. Hammond
in The Madras House
(© Richard Termine)
George Morfogen, Roberta Maxwell and Thomas M. Hammond
in The Madras House
(© Richard Termine)
When Harley Granville Barker was writing The Madras House which is getting a suave, amusing treatment at the Mint Theater under Gus Kaikkonen's direction, two visionary concerns buzzed around his fertile brain. A pre-feminist thinker when the suffragette movement was getting underway, he was deliberating the equality of men and women. Simultaneously, he was pondering the best way a privileged man or liberated woman can make meaningful contributions to an unjust society. He wove these matters into this four-act work that, in many ways, feels more like four separate one-act plays under one title.

"It's a little hard to follow at times," a character says of one of the plot's predicaments, and the same can be said of the three-hour-long comedy-drama itself. But that doesn't mean spectators won't want to follow every unpredictable and intellectually -- as well as emotionally -- stimulating turn of events. The character that's followed throughout the play is Philip Madras (Thomas M. Hammond), one of the moral but never moralistic protagonists that Barker likes to position at the center of his plays. (Another of these upright but gumption-tested men can be seen in Barker's The Voysey Inheritance, which the Mint presented in 1999 and which is currently being staged by The Atlantic Theater Company.)

Philip represents a half-interest in the family business, a British women's department store called The Madras House, which he runs in place of his father Constantine (George Morfogen), who deserted Philip's mother, Amelia (Roberta Maxwell), 30 years earlier for a life in the Middle East. As the play begins, Constantine is due back home to help conclude the firm's sale to an energetic American, Eustace Perrin State (Ross Bickell). The other Madras House partner is Amelia's brother, Henry Huxtable (Jonathan Hogan), who would preside over his six daughters in a commodious London home if his domineering wife, Katherine (Laurie Kennedy), hadn't usurped the assignment.

Barker's first act takes place in the Huxtable household, with Katherine bossing five daughters (Lisa Bostnar, Mary Bacon, Angela Reed, Allison McLemore, Pamela McVeagh) as Philip has dropped in with lawyer chum Major Hippisly Thomas (Mark L. Montgomery). While it looks at the outset as if Barker is going to probe some dysfunctional upper middle-class family issues throughout the play; that's not his aim. In fact, we never see the household members, except for Henry, ever again.

In the second act, Philip is in his office, arbitrating an intramural dispute between Marion Yates (Bacon), a single store worker who's gotten herself pregnant, and William Brigstock (Kraig Swartz), the fellow employee rumored by martinetish Miss Chancellor (Kennedy) to have been involved with Miss Yates. Also present is Brigstock's hot-tempered wife (Reed), who seems far more concerned with her husband's reputation than he does.

In the third act, presented here after the intermission, Constantine finally shows up and the business talk turns into Barker's reflection on the attitudes of early 19th-century men towards women. The final act, set in Philip's house, consists mostly of Constantine's acrimonious reunion with Amelia, followed by Philip's much more conciliatory conversation with his wife Jessica (Bostnar).

It's here that Barker sets out a male-female compromise that only fell more acceptably into place seven or eight decades later. It's also where Barker has Philip question his obligation to humanity -- in much the same way Wallace Shawn raises the question during The Fever, now on view at the current New Group mounting. As becomes evident, Barker's elegant and often truly funny grab bag is both timely and timeless.

A prime reason The Madras House comes across so well in the face of the odds Barker has stacked against it by dint of his now-this-now-that-now-the-other plotting is the level of the dialogue and the psychological understanding of the lively characters speaking it. Anything less than the polish that Barker applies and the piece would only add up to hodgepodge. And even if one sees the play as hodgepodge, it's often irresistible hodgepodge, especially a third act fashion show, supervised by flighty couturier Mr. Windlesham (Kraig Swartz), whose French accent is a hilarious disaster.

The Madras House is boosted immeasurably by its sleek cast, not to mention the work of set designer Charles Morgan - who successfully met a daunting challenge -- and costumer Clint Ramos. The Mint has built The Madras House on a solid foundation.