Having the Wildest Tea Ever in 1901 with Two Eccentric New York Women about to Change History





10-1-12

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The Bachelors' Tea Party
Lady Mendl Tea Garden
56 Irving Place
New York, N.Y.

How eccentric were Bessie Marbury, one of the first female show business agents, and Elsie de Wolfe, the nation’s first interior decorator? Their ‘play,’ The Bachelors, set in 1901, starts with Elsie racing into the center of the tea garden and standing on her head, white bloomers sticking out for all to see, and reciting her first lines.

That’s eccentric, folks.

The producers at the Stolen Chair Production Company came up with a unique idea. They decided to stage a play about two women having tea in the middle of a dining room at a fabled New York tea garden in 1901, with twenty or so patrons just six feet from the actresses. Everybody in the theater has tea along with de Wolfe and Marbury, and their two cute porcelain dolls, who play a variety of male and female roles. The play, written by Kiran Rikhye, is unique, wild and eccentric -- in sum, it's a hoot!

Better still, The Bachelors, which just opened, is a terrific history show. I can’t remember when a cast talked about so much history, and very different kinds of history, in one play (the program is loaded with historical biographies).

The basic plot of the play covers Elsie’s decision to give up show business and start an interior decorating company. She comes to this conclusion after a lengthy tea with her lover, Bessie, who is already helping to manage the careers of show business legends such as writer George Bernard Shaw. Two live together on Irving Place (they actually lived cross the street from Lady Mendl’s) and spend most of their time bickering over a hundred different things. The actresses who play them, Jody Flader as Elsie and Liz Eckert as Bessie, are delightful

The women bring in fully dressed, three-foot-high porcelain dolls to play women, such as Anne Morgan, the granddaughter of billionaire J.P. Morgan, playwright Clyde Fitch and theater producer Charles Frohman. The girls talk to and harass the porcelain characters. (They, uh, don’t talk back.)

By now, you probably think all of this is quit silly. So did I when I sat down, but it works. The play is a wacky and fun filled night at the theater, and you get to have tea and munch on finger sandwiches and scones, too.

What’s interesting about it are the large number of historical topics that the women go over: women’s rights, voting, progressive politics, theater practices, billionaire society, women’s reform groups, women’s social clubs, lower pay for women, discrimination against women at clubs and bars, world and national politics.

There is a lot of humor in the play as the girls berate each other. There are unplanned laughs, too, such as when the waiters fail to hear the women ring a bell to bring in another tea course. The women have to bang away with the bell like a ship was sinking to get a waiter. Then they are all smiles.

I had low expectations for this play, but I loved it. I learn a lot, too. Clyde Fitch, the great turn-of-the-century playwright, died on the steamship Lusitania when it was sunk in 1915, an act that helped move America toward the Allied camp in World War I. The girls’ friend Beatrice de Mille was the mother of Cecil B. DeMille, the first great movie director. Anne Morgan not only started women’s clubs but became one of the first successful American philanthropists. Charles Frohman was the first American producer for the classic play The Importance of Being Earnest.

Elsie de Wolfe, the hot-as-a-pistol actress, got into home design business and decorated New York’s Colony Club and others, plus the homes of wealthy Americans, such as Henry Frick. At one point she and her staff rented an entire floor of offices on Fifth Avenue. She later worked as a nurse in World War I and was decorated for bravery under fire.

Bessie Marbury went on to become the agent for composer Cole Porter and others and participated in wartime relief efforts.

The two women ended their relationship after thirty years and De Wolfe, to the surprise of all, married a diplomat, Charles Mendl (with whom she spent little time). She was immortalized in Cole Porter’s famous song “Anything Goes.”

If you love oddball theater, lots of early twentieth century history and a good cup of tea, hurry over to Lady Mendl’s, where, every night of the week, anything goes.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Stolen Chair Company. Costumes: Julie Schworm, Props and Historical Research: Aviva Meyer. The play is directed by Jon Stancato.


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