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The Skin Game

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Any fighter will tell you that the hardest of blows are often delivered when the gloves come off. And the combatants can be anyone - boxers in a ring or even families who've taken a disliking to each other. It's the latter that's the stated focus of John Galsworthy's The Skin Game, which is currently being successfully, if unassumingly, resurrected by the Mint Theater Company.

Of course, the play's actual subject isn't the petty squabbling over land that consumes and eventually ruins the lives of the play's two rival clans, the Hillcrists and the Hornblowers, but rather the folly of war on any scale. The play first appeared on Broadway in 1920, in the wake of World War I, no doubt serving as an uncomfortable reminder of the brutalities recently completed and making a plea that warfare on that scale should never happen again - in war, the play argues, there are no winners, only losers.

But Galsworthy employs a bit of bait-and-switch to get to that point. The play at first seems to concern the disagreeable nature of progress, as nouveau riche Hornblower (James Gale) is buying up all the land he can to establish factories, caring little for the poor but hard-working families he's displacing along the way. This doesn't sit well with Hillcrist (John C. Vennema) or his family, who attempt to reason with Hornblower but fail and are soon drawn into battle with him for the future of the surrounding estates.

Hornblower's willing to play dirty, tricking the family into losing some cherished land at an auction. Hillcrist's wife Amy (Monique Fowler), however, is willing to play even dirtier, threatening to release a secret she's learned about Chloe (Diana LaMar), the somewhat mysterious woman who's married to Hornblower's son and about to bear his child, in order to diminish their credibility in the community. The battle smolders, flares, dies away, and starts up again, scorching everyone involved and forcing even otherwise innocent bystanders into taking sides in the conflict that lays waste to all it encounters.

The Mint's production is first-rate, and Eleanor Reissa's direction beautifully captures both the early anger and eventual remorse so necessary for the play's dramatic journey. Reissa has, though, regrettably chosen to stage the three-act play with but one intermission, in approximately the worst possible place in the middle of Act Two. The play's overall pacing and Vicki R. Davis's elaborate scenery, which depicts the Hillcrist study and two other nicely appointed interiors, would benefit from more relaxed scene changes, and the audience would benefit from time to simmer in the dramatic buildup that beautifully caps each act as written.

There's little fault to be found in the performances, with LaMar's broken (and fallen) Chloe, Stephen Rowe's ruthless property agent, and Fowler's subtly vicious Amy the most dynamic portrayals onstage. Everyone's solid, though - Vennema, presenting a nicely underplayed Hillcrist; Pat Nesbit, squeezing plenty of juice out of Chloe's put-upon and vengeful maid; and Nicole Lowrance, as Hillcrist's spunky daughter, are also notable. Only in Gale do the elements not come together - his thick accent highlights the glaring class differences between the Hornblowers and Hillcrists, but is about the extent of his characterization that should be more steeped in gleeful, progressive fun.

For obvious reasons, it's understandable that the Mint and Reissa would want to revive the play now: Its message is predictably timely, and the drama proves an astute vehicle for the play's message about the viral dangers of unexpurgated hate, particularly as Chloe's interior and external worlds begin to simultaneously collapse. She's the innocent victim caught between the battling forces, and one of the play's two central focus points; the other is Hillcrist, whose encroaching doubts about his family's tactics go unheeded as the hostilities escalate.

Both convey the breadth of the play's message, and don't draw undue attention to themselves; they're fully realized characters that never play as mere vehicles for delivering anti-war tracts. (Contemporary playwrights, take note.) But if Galsworthy's metaphorical examination of war's effects is sharply and cleverly written, particularly during the nail-biting land auction and Chloe's breakdown scene, it still never quite manages to unleash the idea's full dramatic potential.

This is because, at least in part, the largest points are all made in ways miniscule and familiar; Hillcrist's line, "I never could hate proper; it's a confounded nuisance," is a quintessential example. For better or worse, by the standards of the hand-wringing, call-to-action plays that have saturated New York stages in the nearly four years since the September 11 attacks, The Skin Game comes across as but a quiet voice in an increasingly vocal crowd: It's strong enough to make itself felt, but not to make itself distinctly heard.


The Skin Game
Through August 14
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission
Mint Theater Company, 311 West 43rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets and current Performance Schedule: 212.315.0231

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