The author, long acclaimed for his children's books featuring Winnie-the-Pooh and other beloved characters, was not unlike his (more or less) contemporaries Arthur Conan Doyle and William Somerset Maugham in that all three had hoped to be remembered for works that were eclipsed by what they regarded as their own lesser endeavors. (In the case of Doyle, his Sherlock Holmes stories didn't mean as much to him as his cult writing; and though Maugham took his celebrated novels and short stories seriously, the reception of his plays left him disappointed even though hey did have some success with them.)
Milne was roundly patted on the back for his plays when they were first produced -- and yet, some 80 years on, they're mostly gathering dust on back shelves. The reason for this isn't mysterious: Milne's concern with upper-middle-class English morality seems a tad fusty now. That's the shared concern of Mr. Pim Passes By and The Truth About Blayds, which debuted (respectively) in 1920 and 1922. Both plays feature a woman whose ethics are unimpeachable -- a descendent, it would seem, of Shakespeare's hallmark wise Rosalind in As You Like It.
On the basis of their similarities, the works tempt a reviewer to generalize about Milne's theater oeuvre. I'm going to resist do so, except to note that on the evidence of Bank's stylish staging of the plays (Mr. Pim is a revival of the company's earlier revival), Milne was a master craftsman with a propensity and facility for plots in which unexpected monkey wrenches thrown into generally serene environments force complacent participants to reexamine and revise their beliefs.
In Mr. Pim Passes By, the eponymous character (played by Jack Davidson) drops into the placid Marden residence in Buckinghamshire and offhandedly vouchsafes some information that leads the gracious, wily Olivia Marden (Lisa Bostnar) to assume that she's not married to the devoted but conventional George Marden (Stephen Schnetzer) because her supposedly deceased first husband may still be alive. This development gives Lisa the opportunity to manipulate a proposed divorce and remarriage to George in such a way as to reverse her husband's objections to the engagement of niece Dinah (Victoria Mack) to the hopeful Brian Strange (James Knight).
In The Truth About Blayds, the dutiful Isobel Blayds (Lisa Bostnar) has long since rejected the marriage proposal of A.L. Royce (Stephen Schnetzer) in favor of caring for her ailing poet father, Oliver Blayds (Jack Ryland), who's celebrating his 90th birthday in his London mansion. Surrounded by his older daughter Marion Blayds-Conway (Kristin Griffith) and her husband William (Jack Davidson), plus son Oliver (James Knight) and daughter Septima (Victoria Mack), and with Royce also on hand, the elder Blayds enjoys a brief toast and later confides a long-held secret to the attentive Isobel: He says that he has written almost nothing of the work attributed to him, and his disclosure causes great intramural consternation at his subsequent death. Though Isobel believes she knows what must be done -- namely, tell the truth and face the impoverishing consequences -- the family and Royce have conflicting opinions.
It was clever of Banks to pair these plays. While Milne sets up in both situations where determining the right action to take and then taking it is central, the works have contrasting tones. Mr. Pim Passes By is light-hearted as Olivia puts her bombastic husband through a few hoops. The other characters are also easy-going sorts -- except for George Marden's equally strait-laced sister, Lady Marden (Kristin Griffith), who arrives and departs wielding a riding crop. Much darker shades taint The Truth About Blayds, with betrayal (of the dead poet who actually wrote the works that Blayds appropriated) and deception lurking in the script's corners. Isobel's plight is serious: The good woman realizes she sacrificed potential happiness to help perpetuate a hoax.
Nevertheless, neither play is to be, ummm, pooh-poohed. And Bank's productions -- both of which take place on Sarah Lambert's adaptable set -- treat Milne with respect. It's a respect that acknowledges the works as artifacts of theater history but also recognizes their continued vitality. Important to the effect is Bank's decision to use the same cast for both plays, with only Jack Ryland appearing in just one, twinkling of eye and feeble of body as Oliver Blayds.
Because the performance schedule requires the cast to switch from play to play on practically a daily basis, they are possibly the only Manhattan group currently performing in repertory. This is a bonus for local audiences, who don't have nearly enough chances to experience true repertory practice; it's also a bonus for actors who love the challenge. Looking distinguished in Theresa Squire's period costumes and sounding quite English (Amy Stoller worked on the dialects), the cast members not only rise to the occasion, they help make the occasion.
Most prominent of them is Lisa Bostnar, who's becoming one of the Mint's most valuable leading ladies. In both plays, she glows with intelligence, as if her pointed nose and jutting chin turn her profile into a satellite dish for smarts. Bostnar draws on knowing glances and gestures for both characters, although she conveys what she knows and how it affects her in utterly contrasting ways. The tall, solid Stephen Schnetzer also adapts himself nimbly from obtuse to sympathetic, depending on which play he's doing -- yet, in both, he has the air of a man in love.
Victoria Mack and James Knight, who are crazy about one another in Mr. Pim Passes By and less crazy about one another as sister and brother in The Truth About Blayds, have got the bright and brittle young Brit act down pat. Jack Davidson's Mr. Pim is as addled as Mr. Magoo but the actor is a proper martinet as Oliver Blayds's unimaginative secretary and son-in-law. Kristin Griffith, ready to ride the hounds in one work, is hounded in the other. Katie Lowes does parlor maid duties in both households and is impeccable about her introductions of guests and her wheeling-in of drink carts.
To some patrons, Mr. Pim Passes By may seem trivial; to others, The Truth About Blayds may seem overly portentous. But, for many of us, the sheer pleasure of having the opportunity to see these plays and to compare the two emotive veins in which Milne wrote is reward enough for attending both. Yes, there's something closed-off about Milne's writing; by the end of both the comedy and the drama, lovers are united and all is right (or right enough) with the word. Perhaps this outlook feels unrealistically positive so many decades later, but it's a treat for audiences to have the chance to decide for themselves.