84 Years Late, New Play “Unfaithfully” Premieres

Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray in The Mint Theatre Company's world-premiere production of Miles Matheson's 1933 Yours Unfaithfully, directed by Jonathan Bank. Photo: Richard Termine.

Jonathan Bank is artistic director of Off-Broadway’s Mint Theater Company — and has been for the last 20 years. The New York Times called him the “leading New York entrepreneur of what he calls ‘the neglected play business’,” which he vastly prefers to what The Village Voice called him: “that truffle hound of half-buried treasures from the past.” After all, as Bank notes, a truffle hound is usually a pig. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and reassures all who ask that he’d never act unfaithfully toward the sports teams of his hometown.

Bank is directing the Mint’s current production: Miles Malleson’s Yours Unfaithfully. If you’ve never heard of it, that because the play is a case study in the “neglected play business”: published in 1933, it was never produced. “I can’t say why it never had a production,” Bank confesses, “although it doesn’t surprise me that no producer ever thought he would make money from a provocative and thoughtful exploration of the virtues of monogamy in marriage.”

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Here’s more on the play, which concerns a couple who indeed have forsaken monogamy for open marriage:

Stephen and Anne, blissfully happy for eight years, are committed to living up to their ideals. When Stephen, a writer who isn’t writing, begins to sink into a funk of unproductive moodiness, Anne encourages him to seek out a fresh spark. Can their marriage survive uncompromising generosity, sacrifice and love?

Largely unknown today, Malleson (1888-1969) enjoyed a six-decade career in the theater as an actor, writer, director and producer.

Performances of Yours Unfaithfully began on Dec. 27 and will continue through Feb. 18 at the Beckett Theatre (410 W. 42nd St). Bank calls the play an “un-Romantic comedy” for reasons that will be “clear to anyone who sees it.” Which is perhaps reason enough to do just that.

And now, 5 questions Jonathan Bank has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

Not long ago, [veteran journalist] Harry Haun wrote for The New York Observer about my work at the Mint; he asked me about the influence of the late Jim Houghton’s Signature Theater Company.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

Surely you don’t think that I would characterize any question asked of me as “idiotic”?

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

You overestimate the number and variety of questions that I’ve been asked about my work. I can’t recall any weird questions at all. Maybe this would qualify?

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Given the year when Yours Unfaithfully was published and reviewed — 1933 — picture being in the sanctum of the Lord Chamberlain, who still held the power at that time to censor plays. What is the conversation about this play? Would it have been banned?

It’s easy to presume that the play would have been banned — but I don’t think that’s true. Malleson’s play The Fanatics (published in 1924, produced in 1927) received a license, and I think it’s a more “dangerous” play in terms of both sex and politics.

In staging Yours Unfaithfully more than 80 years after it was written, what guidance do your actors need? Must they imagine performing their roles in the world of 1933, or can they bring a modern sensibility to their work? What’s most challenging about the play for 2016 actors?

Perhaps the most challenging thing for contemporary actors is to put aside the mistaken notion that feelings, thinking or behavior in 1933 was very much different than it is today. Clyde Fitch himself said (in another context): “People are still people all the world over, with perhaps a difference in table manners and bedroom morals.” If we define table manners to include the use of profanity, I think what he said in 1906 remains true today.

Bonus question:

Mr. Malleson is so pleased — at last, a production! From beyond the grave, he will grant you three questions on any topic, but only three. What do you ask him? How does he respond?

Miles and I speak frequently, so I’ve asked him all the important questions. Ask my cast how often I come into rehearsals and say that I had a conversation with him. Like the chat we had about the “very, very tiny one.” (Sorry about that, Miles, but I fixed it — as you know!)