Jonathan Bank has given a foster home to Arnold Bennett’s 1909 play
What the Public Wants at the Mint Theatre. And as directed superbly by Matthew Arbour and designed by Roger Hanna, what a welcome new resident it is as it goes about skewering a publishing mogul who may put today’s audiences in mind of someone like Rupert Murdoch.
That man is Sir Charles Worgan (Rob Breckenridge), who has founded (as well as bought) all manner of newspapers along the way to a knighthood and becoming a millionaire. Unfortunately, he’s made his name and his fortune not by giving the public the truth but by giving the public what he has determined it wants. Only the arrival of his brother Francis (Marc Vietor), who’s been traveling the world for the past 19 years, causes Sir Charles to decide he’ll alter his ways.
When Francis suggests that Charles needs a wife to attract the members of society who’ve taken to scorning him, Charles sets his sights on childhood friend Emily Vernon (Ellen Adair), who’s now a not-particularly good actress but apparently more effective play reader at a West End theater company.
Charles’ attempt to win penniless Emily occupies most of the play’s action and whether he’ll keep her occupies the rest. It’s all scripted by Bennett with pungent dialogue and with a series of marvelously colorful characters regularly passing through. The most appealing is Francis, a man whose intellect is sharp but whose inability to find a place to settle is, well, unsettling.
Among the others are Charles’ astute partner Saul Kendrick (Douglas Rees), theatrical manager Holt St. John (Jeremy Lawrence), St. John’s leading lady Henrietta Blackwood (Birgit Huppuch) and, the most instantly amusing, drama critic Simon MacQuoid (Lawrence, doubling and actually tripling later) who abhors split infinitives.
Among the production’s many impeccable sequences is a love scene during which the supremely confident Charles becomes uncharacteristically abashed when wooing the understanding Emily, and a scene at the Worgan family home where developments ensue that begin to give Emily doubts about her decision.
By dint of his having the largest part and his filling it with size and scope, Breckenridge looms over the proceedings, but Vietor does an outstanding job of conveying the wanderlust gnawing at brother Francis. Adair, who couldn’t be lovelier to look at, supplies all the warmth her role requires. Lawrence, taking on three roles, rearranges facial hair deftly and backs up the make-up shifts with astute characterizations. (Were he to rely less on a nasal twang to all three men, he might even improve his work.) Huppuch is regal as leading-lady Blackwood and then homey as mother to all three Worgan brothers.
When at season’s end, award givers are looking around for the best ensembles, they may very well decide this is what the public wanted — and got.