DALLAS Oh, Hamlet. You little brat. While Shakespeare’s most famous tragic character gets more than he bargained for (what’s the death count by play’s end?), the corresponding character of Terence Rattigan’s 1944 comedy Less Than Kind has a decidedly happier ending, not to mention a change of heart about his potential stepfather — “a little more than kin, and less than kind.” You might even leave the American premiere of the play at Dallas’ Theatre Three with a pep in your step, after there have been no stabbings or poisonings, although they’re certainly considered.
Although Rattigan is one of the great playwrights of 20th-century British theater, this play is finally receiving its American premiere in its original form 70 years later. It was reworked under the title Love in Idleness (another Shakespeare reference, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and became a popular touring vehicle for the great theater couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. It was later renamed O Mistress Mine (yet another Bard reference, from Twelfth Night) for a Broadway run in 1946. This version was rediscovered by director Adrian Brown and premiered in London a few years ago.
Theatre Three’s Jac Alder loves these early to mid-century British comedies and dramas, and his production of Less Than Kind is even more successful than the theater’s most recent ventures into Noel Coward and Agatha Christie. It can be slow-going at first, but Rattigan rattles off these delicious witticisms, and at T3, they land.
The Hamlet-inspired character is Michael Brown (Fort Worth-raised actor Zak Reynolds), a young man with a fervent socialist bent who disapproves of his mother, Olivia (Lisa-Gabrielle Greene), being in a relationship with wealthy conservative Sir John Fletcher (Paul T. Taylor). Michael even considers poison, but doesn’t go as far as the Danish prince. He does unwittingly find a way to get back, although the side effect is that he falls in love with John’s ex-wife, Diana Fletcher (Jenna Anderson).
It’s a comedy with much to say about wartime politics and social and class issues, which Alder adds to by cleverly casting an actress of Indian descent, Krishna Smitha, in the small role of John’s assistant, Miss Dell. On Brian Clinnin’s set on a raised platform on Theatre Three’s in-the-round space, the stage is “held up” by sandbags, as if a barricade from a world war. Bruce R. Coleman’s costumes evoke the era, and the different classes, nicely. Especially fabulous are Diana’s befeathered hats.
Of course, it wouldn’t work without this casting. Green, Taylor and Reynolds hit the accents with effortless subtlety (dialect coach is Lydia Mackay), and you never once doubt that the rakish Taylor, better than he’s been in years, falls for this woman who many might consider “beneath his station.” The handsome Reynolds balances his political fervor and hatred of John with a believable, youthful idealism and infatuation with an older woman. It’s no surprise that he considers a change in ideology at the thought of more money. (Those weak liberals!)
Greene is hilarious in the beginning as a gossiping, well-kept woman, but makes the transition to a less glamorous life, out of loyalty to her son, with ease.
Theatre Three has been especially strong in recent years on contemporary plays, but with this newly discovered version of a work by an underproduced playwright — in these parts at least; there have been two Rattigan Broadway revivals since 2011 — the result is rarely less than stellar. That bratty Hamlet is much more fun this way.