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The Charity That Began at Home

By New York City
Harmony Schuttler and Karl Kenzlerin The Charity That Began at Home(Photo: Richard Termine)
Harmony Schuttler and Karl Kenzler
in The Charity That Began at Home
(Photo: Richard Termine)
In 2002, the name St. John Hankin may mean little or nothing to American theatergoers, yet here's an English dramatist whom George Bernard Shaw called "The Mephistopheles of new comedy" and "one of the masters of comedy among my playwright colleagues." The incomparable Max Beerbohm, who followed Shaw as the Saturday Review critic, said Hankin was "the sanest and most level-headed of men and an always amiable and witty companion." Hankin wrote five plays between 1903 and 1909, and no less than Harley Granville Barker saw fit to produce two of them. Furthermore, during his productive years, Hankin -- who eventually committed suicide -- was the only Edwardian other than Shaw to have more than one play mounted at the Royal Court Theater.

So, if Oscar Wilde wrote five plays between 1890 and 1895 and we know plenty about him and them, why don't we know more about Hankin and his outpourings? Why were none of his works shipped over immediately? Maybe it's because stateside producers at the time felt they were "too British" to import. Maybe Hankin's output was overshadowed by the Wilde and Shaw works, and possibly even by the plays that William Somerset Maugham was cranking out with modest success in those days.

Ninety-six years on, however, the clearly undeserved St. John Hankin oversight is being corrected. Jonathan Bank, the Mint Theater's tireless artistic director, has dusted off The Charity That Began at Home and has made it the first Hankin play to be produced in the U.S., proving along with snappy director Gus Kaikkonnen that the script is in, er, mint condition -- no matter that it was last produced in England in 1917. Referred to in a subtitle as "a comedy for philanthropists," The Charity That Began at Home deals with unexamined altruism among the upper classes and seems, as it must have done 100 years ago, cogent in a world where fundraising balls still comprise much of society's winter and spring seasons.

For the love of charity:
Kristin Griffith and Benjamin Howes(Photo: Richard Termine)
For the love of charity:
Kristin Griffith and Benjamin Howes
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Hankin -- who must have been a sly, if depressed, young chap -- tells a simple but wry tale. The monied Lady Denison (Kristin Griffith) decides that knitting blankets for the poor and committing herself and daughter Margery (Harmony Schuttler) to indulging in other selfless endeavors isn't doing enough for her less-privileged fellow man and woman; nor is her retaining of servants who, like her butler Soames (Troy Schremmer), have had run-ins with the law. So, on advice from a man who has founded the Church of Humanity and is called Hylton (Benjamin Howes), Lady Denison decides to invite a handful of people too disagreeable to be invited anywhere else to her country home for a bucolic weekend. Though her more practical sister, Mrs. Eversleigh (Becky London), vehemently expresses understandable objections, Lady Denison throws the house open to the argumentative Mrs. Horrocks (Michele Tauber), the boring General Bonsor (Lee Moore) of the endless military anecdotes, the officious Miss Triggs (Alice White), and the nervous Mr. Firket (Christopher Franciosa). There's also the matinee idol-ish Hugh Verreker (Karl Kenzler), who could charm birds off of trees and does something along those lines with the smitten Margery. Hugh, though, has a tainted past that is eventually revealed and causes complications.

As the guests pass through Lady Denison's drawing-room with reports of smoldering tiffs and pose themselves for longer periods of time to illustrate how (comically) numbing they can be, Hankin chips away at the notion that doing good is its own reward. As he sees it, doing good can be its own headache. But he also sees, as the well-spoken but spunky Margery falls for Hugh and he reciprocates her feelings, that men who have made mistakes when young and reckless can improve. They can even turn out to be gallant. What happens when most of the fractious guests are sent packing, and only Hugh is left behind with Margery and the excessively polite Mr. Hylton, is too surprising to be reported here; but Hankin's denouement indicates an understanding of what can be accomplished when intelligent people understand themselves and act accordingly.

The Charity That Began at Home is, of course, a comedy of manners, and there is a period aura that inevitably hovers around the piece. After all, the very fact that it takes place entirely in a drawing room and that no one in post-millennium Manhattan would think of using the term "drawing room" promptly dates it. What doesn't change, however, is human nature. On the evidence of this piece, Hankin observed it well. He scoffs at pretense and points up, without preaching, the difference between genuine and phony sacrifice -- sacrifice being, perhaps, the most unfortunately dated concept with which the play deals.

Through all of the sturm und drang, the playwright derives plenty of laughs from the visitors, who are a Dickensian lot -- even Chaucerian, in the broadly subtle strokes Hankin employs. Perhaps the cleverest creation is General Bonsor, who is repeatedly interrupted and therefore has to precede many speeches with the determined phrase, "As I was saying." Hankin also does well by the lovers, and Mrs. Eversleigh provides welcome injections of reason. Even the personalities of the below-stairs trio -- the suave Soames, the ever-so-slightly-menacing William (Bruce Ward), and the shy Anson (Pauline Tully) -- are tidily established.

Kristin Griffith, Benjamin Howes, Harmony Schuttler,and Karl Kenzler in The Charity That Began at Home(Photo: Richard Termine)
Kristin Griffith, Benjamin Howes, Harmony Schuttler,
and Karl Kenzler in The Charity That Began at Home
(Photo: Richard Termine)
The players are up to the Hankin challenge, each and every one of them etching nifty portraits. If a best has to be declared among them, it's Kenzler, who has the most delicate balance to strike. Tall and glinting of eye, he's the ideal would-be husband and unexpected idealist. With Margery, Schuttler takes a part that could be thick as treacle and keeps it buoyant, especially in the not-so-restrained love scenes. Moore is so skillful as the garrulous Bonsor that he makes every word he speaks simultaneously tedious and gripping. When he ponders being called "boring," his repetition of that damning word is poignantly funny. Yes, they're all good: London as the tart and smart Mrs. Eversleigh; Tauber as the pillow-shaped, furious Mrs. Horrocks; White as Mrs. Triggs, looking like the type of school marm to whom a mischievous student would give an apple with a worm in it; Howes as Hylton, a man with the allure of institutional wallpaper. Director Kaikkonen, who did such a fine job with the Mint's Voysey Inheritance a few years back, does another fine job here.

It's also a pleasure to note that the Mint, which has often seemed as if it were getting by on a lick and a promise, was apparently able to spend a few more shillings on this production. Charles F. Morgan's set includes some suitably heavy Edwardian furnishings and a pair of arresting, Lalique-influenced glass doors that demand attention, though there's nothing more than a black drop behind the drawing room when a landscape of some sort is called for. Henry Shaffer's costumes, particularly the soigné evening clothes, lend the right kind of restrained elegance. Williams Armstrong designed the lighting.


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