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Review: Noël Coward's The Rat Trap Makes Its New York Debut 96 Years Later

Mint Theater Company presents a rare staging of an unloved drama.

Sarin Monae West and James Evans star in the New York debut of Noël Coward's The Rat Trap, directed by Alexander Lass, for Mint Theater Company at New York City Center.
(© Todd Cerveris)

It's not every day that a critic writing in 2022 gets to review the New York debut of a play by Noël Coward — but it would be Mint Theater Company that offers the opportunity: The troupe has a penchant for stumbling on the lost plays of unknown writers and a taste for the unloved dramas of extraordinary writers. The Rat Trap belongs to the latter category. This early effort (Coward was only 18) exhibits traces of the witty dialogue and waltzing-up-to-the-edge social commentary that would characterize later plays like Private Lives and Design for Living. But we also walk away understanding why it has never joined their ranks.

It opens on the eve of the marriage of Sheila (Sarin Monae West) and Keld (James Evans). She's an introspective "lady novelist" and he's an emerging playwright — and they are terribly in love. They wryly sneer at Bohemian couple Naomi (Heloise Lowenthal) and Edmund (Ramzi Khalaf), who have eschewed marriage in favor of "free love." But Sheila's friend Olive (Elisabeth Gray) senses doom ahead: "When two brilliant egoists marry, unless one of them is prepared to sacrifice certain things, there is bound to be trouble." She also predicts that Sheila will be the one to sacrifice, being both the woman and the more intelligent of the two.

We know she's right from the instant Keld makes a comment about the "labour classes" spoiling "all the beauty of England." There's also the nastiness with which he responds to the housekeeper, Burrage (Cynthia Mace), when she asks him what he wants for lunch (pro tip: you can learn a lot about a man's wisdom, or lack thereof, by the way he treats the people who bring him food). With a name that suggests a bottom-feeding crustacean, Keld can be nothing but a prickly mediocrity. He naturally becomes the toast of London's West End.

Cynthia Mace plays Burrage, and Sarin Monae West plays Sheila in Noël Coward's The Rat Trap, directed by Alexander Lass, for Mint Theater Company at New York City Center.
(© Todd Cerveris)

Coward was riding high on the success of The Vortex and was on a transatlantic ship to New York to attend rehearsals of This Was a Man when The Rat Trap made its London debut in 1926 (he was 26 by then). It ran a total of 12 performances before returning to the lower desk drawer from whence it came.

Having rescued it nearly a century later, Mint mounts a competent production (directed by Alexander Lass) without convincing us that The Rat Trap is a lost gem. Rather, it represents a solid first stab by a writer still finding his own voice by imitating that of George Bernard Shaw. Amusing epigrams plummily pronounced over coupes of champagne give way to spectacular marital brawls shouted within earshot of the maid. Even in the early 20th century, one gets the sense that The Rat Trap could have only ever constituted a tiny ripple in the wake of Shaw and Ibsen.

West leads the cast with a sympathetic and sturdy portrayal of Sheila, a character brimming with perspicacity who nevertheless refuses to see the trap into which she gleefully leaps (love can do that). Evans makes this seem all the more irrational by delivering a loathsome Keld, simultaneously insecure and all-too-amused with himself. Playing the narcissistic actor (and obvious other woman) Ruby Raymond, Claire Saunders is as bubbly as the aforementioned champagne. And most surprisingly, Mace's maid steals all her scenes with her disapproving glances and one very funny bit involving a noisy serving cart.

Heloise Lowenthal, Claire Saunders, and Ramzi Khalaf appear in Noël Coward's The Rat Trap, directed by Alexander Lass, for Mint Theater Company at New York City Center.
(© Todd Cerveris)

The set (by Vicki R. Davis) exudes interwar splendor on a budget (the two paintings in Sheila and Keld's study are a nice touch). Even though the set changes take entirely too long, Lass covers them with a live performance: In the first act we get Coward's song "Forbidden Fruit" (gamely interpreted by Khalaf and Lowenthal). In the second act, it's a striking recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending," which helps to evoke the rural Cornish setting of the final scene (sound design by Bill Toles). Hunter Kaczorowski costumes the actors in vibrant period dress to accentuate the characters (all dark lipstick and tassels, Naomi seems to have acquired her style from a boudoir). As lit by Christian DeAngelis, the colors take on the warm quality of a fading memory.

That's what The Rat Trap is destined to remain: It's not in the same tier as Coward's better plays, but it is by no means a disaster — and its observations about the compromises one must make in any marriage are still relevant, a bit of reality to counteract the have-it-all delusion.