“The Rat Trap” Noël Coward’s terrific feminist play of 100 years ago

By Lucy Komisar

Sarin Monae West as Sheila Brandreth and James Evans as Keld Maxwell, photo Todd Cerveris.

In 1918, at age 18, Noël Coward wrote a feminist play about a novelist who gave up working to be wifely support for her less talented playwright husband. Coward was a great admirer of George Bernard Shaw, and this is due homage. It is an amazing feminist play for the time. And gets a fine production from the Mint Theatre which specializes in bringing out plays of many years past.

Heloise Lowenthal as Naomi and Ramzi Khalaf as Edmund, photo Todd Cerveris.

The story centers around Sheila Brandreth (Sarin Monae West) the novelist, and Keld Maxwell (James Evans) as her utterly self-centered and often nasty husband. Sheila’s friend Olive (the excellent Elisabeth Gray), a free-living journalist, warns her before the marriage that Keld will destroy her as a writer and turn her into a helpmeet. How prescient of the brilliant Coward! A lot is telegraphed. But at that time audiences needed to be spoon-fed.

Elisabeth Gray as Olive and Sarin Monae West as Sheila, photo Todd Cerveris.

How could life be different? Friend Naomi (Heloise Lowenthal) with lover Edmund (Ramzi Khalaf) — they are Bohemians – declare for free love, marriage as a sop to the public. (Lowenthal is terrific as the effusive Naomi.) Sheila agrees that love should be free but wonders, “How do you face the child problems” (Consider Chekhov’s “gun in the first act” here.)

Olive, who has been married before, sets out how this love will sacrifice Sheila’s personality and, “You are much cleverer; You’ll be the one to give in. You will be great, Keld will never be great, and you will let your work go.”

The rest is predictive. After the marriage, Keld is screaming, nasty at any interruption to his work, by her or their servant, the terrific Cynthia Mace as the hard faced (“marriage is a snare”) Burrage.

Cynthia Mace as Burrage and Sarin Monae West as Sheila, photo Todd Cerveris.

Keld works at their studio and she is banished to her room, with hardly a pencil. Then a hustling actress arrives to seduce him to get a better role in the play he is writing. She says, “I’m quite happy at Claridge’s; there’s something so county about Claridge’s.” And Keld replies, “Yes, there is. One feels that even the waiters are the sons of retired colonels.”

Keld ignores Sheilas’s advice that he doesn’t understand Ruby, that “you know nothing about women, just superficialities.” Coward understood a lot.. Keld knocks her onto the couch. He declares, “One of us must surrender. Just give in. You’re trying to beat me mentally all the time, and I can’t stand it any longer.”Meanwhile, they are living on her royalties. She is in denial.

Heloise Lowenthal, Claire Saunders as Ruby, and Ramzi Khalaf photo Todd Cerveris.

So finally, she gets some guts: “Olive warned me and it’s come true; we’re like two rats in a trap, fighting, fighting, fighting. You need a commonplace, dull, domesticated wife with no brain and boundless open-mouthed appreciation for every mortal thing you do—someone who would hang on your words and convince you all the time of your own incredible brilliance; the sort of woman who could be tactful when you were fractious and upset, and affectionate when you felt in the mood for it.”

Claire Saunders as Ruby and Sarin Monae West as Sheila, photo Todd Cerveris.

But wait a minute! A year later, astonishment.They are still together. He is a big success as playwright. She has not gone beyond the two chapters of her novel. Ugh! “I don’t want to write now. There is no need. Keld is making.hundreds.” Ugh!

Well, that will pass. Olive tells her Keld is having an affair with the tacky actress. You have to see the rest yourself. A terrific feminist play, kudos to Coward.

“The Rat Trap” gets a fine production from The Mint’s actors, who all persuade you that they are the characters of that time, helped a bit by Hunter Kaczorowski’s terrific period costumes. And the fact that the director Alexander Lass and half the cast are British.

“The Rat Trap.” Written by Noël Coward, directed by Alexander Lass. Mint Theater Company, NY City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, NYC. Tkts 212-581-1212. Runtime 2:10. Opened Nov 21, 2022; closes Dec 10, 2022. Masks required.

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