Review: Noël Coward’s The Rat Trap makes its New York debut 96 years later

It’s not every day that a critic writing in 2022 gets to review the New York debut of a Noël Coward play – but the Mint Theater Company offers the opportunity: the troupe has a penchant for covering the lost plays by unknown authors stumbling and a fondness for the unloved dramas of extraordinary writers. The rat trap belongs to the latter category. This early work (Coward was only 18) bears traces of the witty dialogue and pushing social commentary that would characterize later plays such as private life and Design for living. But we also walk away and understand why it never joined their ranks.

It begins on the eve of Sheila (Sarin Monae West) and Keld’s (James Evans) wedding. She’s an introspective “novelist” and he’s an aspiring playwright – and they’re madly in love. They ironically scoff at bohemian couple Naomi (Heloise Lowenthal) and Edmund (Ramzi Khalaf), who gave up marriage in favor of “free love.” But Sheila’s friend Olive (Elisabeth Gray) senses trouble: “When two brilliant selfish people get married, there will be trouble unless one of them is willing to sacrifice certain things.” She also predicts that Sheila will be the one who will sacrifice herself as she is both the woman and the more intelligent of the two.

We know she’s right as soon as Keld makes a comment about the ‘working classes’ spoiling ‘all the beauty of England’. There’s also the malice with which he reacts to housekeeper Burrage (Cynthia Mace) when she asks him what he’d like for lunch (pro tip: you can tell a lot about a man’s wisdom or his lack of manner learn how he treats the people who bring him food). With a name suggestive of a bottom-feeding crustacean, Keld can be nothing but prickly mediocrity. He becomes, of course, the toast of London’s West End.

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

Coward rode high on the success of The vortex and was on a transatlantic ship bound for New York to attend rehearsals That was a man if The rat trap made his debut in London in 1926 (he was 26 at the time). It ran a total of 12 performances before being returned to the bottom desk drawer it came from.

After being salvaged almost a century later, Mint puts on a competent production (directed by Alexander Lass) without convincing us The rat trap is a lost jewel. Rather, it represents a solid first stab of a writer who still finds his own voice by imitating George Bernard Shaw’s. Amusing epigrams, clumsily spoken, over champagne coupes give way to spectacular marital brawls shouted within earshot of the maid. Even in the early 20th century one gets the feeling The rat trap could only ever have represented a tiny wave in the wake of Shaw and Ibsen.

West leads the cast with a sympathetic and robust portrayal of Sheila, a character steeped in wit who yet refuses to see the trap she happily jumps into (love can do that). Evans makes this even more irrational by delivering a hideous Keld who is simultaneously insecure and overly amused with himself. Playing narcissistic actor (and obviously another woman) Ruby Raymond, Claire Saunders is as bubbly as the aforementioned champagne. And most surprisingly, Mace’s maid steals all of her scenes with her disapproving looks and a very funny part involving a noisy trolley.

Heloise Lowenthal, Claire Saunders and Ramzi Khalaf appear in Noël Cowards The rat trapdirected by Alexander Lass, for the Mint Theater Company at New York City Center.
(© Todd Cerveris)

The set (by Vicki R. Davis) exudes interwar grandeur on a budget (the two paintings in Sheila’s and Keld’s study are a nice touch). Even if the set changes take far too long, Lass covers them up with a live performance: Act One features Coward’s song “Forbidden Fruit” (playfully performed by Khalaf and Lowenthal). Act Two is a stunning recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which helps evoke the Cornish countryside setting in the final scene (sound design by Bill Toles). Hunter Kaczorowski dresses the actors in vibrant period clothing to accentuate the characters (all dark lipstick and tassels, Naomi seems to have borrowed her style from a boudoir). As illuminated by Christian DeAngelis, the colors take on the warm quality of a fading memory.

That’s what The rat trap will certainly remain: it’s not in the same league as Coward’s better plays, but it’s by no means a disaster — and his observations on the compromises that must be made in any marriage are still relevant to counteract that with a bit of reality to have everything Illusion.