BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
"I've only got one principle," declares Sir Charles Worgan, a British press lord. "Give the public what it wants." Owning more than 40 publications — ranging from scandal sheets to religious journals — Worgan obviously has all sorts of different publics to satisfy.
"What the Public Wants" is Arnold Bennett's 1909 comedy about a media tycoon who seeks more than money and power. He now craves recognition from the dismissive upper class. "I'm just as good as they are, and I don't like their attitude," fumes Worgan, who plots to burnish his public image.
A sly satire on mass journalism and philanthropy, "What the Public Wants" represents yet another vintage piece neatly presented by Mint Theater Company, which specializes in staging long-neglected works. Once a widely known British author, Bennett (1867-1931) is remembered today mainly for his touching novel "The Old Wives' Tale" — if he is remembered at all.
Opening Thursday at the Mint — its snug theater boasts comfortable new seats, incidentally — Bennett's play proves to be a slight though agreeable study of a self-made man in pursuit of respectability.
All the while ruthlessly manipulating his media empire, Worgan donates lavishly to the right causes, sponsors an arty theater company and courts Emily, a genteel widow who helps to achieve his aims. Ultimately Worgan discovers he cannot attain everything he wants, Emily in particular.
Director Matthew Arbour steadily paces the play's four acts upon designer Roger Hanna's handsome set of low arches, brick and opaque glass depicting the mogul's office. Bluff but never rough in style, Rob Breckinridge cuts a dynamic and assured figure as Worgan. In contrast, Ellen Adair portrays Emily mostly with a timid air. Their scene when Worgan vaguely proposes to Emily is a sweetly awkward exchange.
Most showily among the capable eight-member company, Jeremy Lawrence tackles three characters. Boldly applying facial hair and eccentric voices, Lawrence respectively and amusingly portrays a drama critic in a snit over split infinitives, a theater impresario in a high-toned rage and a provincial neighbor with a taste for tabloid scandal.
While Bennett's comedy was a success a century ago and remains gently humorous, its sub-Shavian satire has faded and its mechanics tend to clack like an ancient typewriter. But anybody who enjoys these rarities will appreciate the play's minor pleasures as well as the Mint's solid production. It's a treat to see an obscure play as written, especially so in the wake of David Auburn's ugly renovation of "The New York Idea" over at Atlantic Theater.
"What the Public Wants" continues through March 13 at Mint Theater Company, 311 W. 43rd St., New York. Call (212) 315-0231 or visit www.minttheater.org.