The Mint Theater will unfurl a trio of plays this season by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962), a woman of religious upbringing who worked in her family dry goods business as a teenager and in London offices in her twenties and thirties, where she discovered theater and began to write plays. The Price of Thomas Scott, the 1913 play first up of the Mint program trio, is quietly directed by the Mint Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, animated with enthusiastic dance breaks by choreographer Tracy Bersley, and full of social themes without consistently convincing character arcs.
The Price of Thomas Scott first focuses on limits placed on merchant class denizens in an unspecified English town in the early 1900s. Shop owner Thomas Scott’s daughter Annie (earnest, hopeful, then resigned Emma Geer) talks with her brother Leonard (slightly-too-old-for-schoolboy but charming Nick LaMedica) about her desire to train in Paris and open her own hat shop back home, while Leonard shares his dream of attending the local fancy private school. “It’s hateful to be poor,” Annie observes to her brother while she continues to adorn hats and speak dreamily of Paris. (I half suspected at this early point of the play that Annie’s Paris would be a version of the aspirational Moscow in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but this was not to be. Or perhaps this was a dangling detail left for us to parse as we wish.)
At the top of the play, I mused the play might be Annie’s play. She enumerates to her brother their father’s resistance to change, and how he’s changing. “He’s just frightfully old-fashioned,” she notes. “Do you think I’m going to give in to him? He must learn, you know. He’s getting better over the theatre already.” All too soon this stance dissolves and we no longer check in with Annie’s modulating perspective. The play is turned over to her father.
The fate of this family and futures of the children depend, we soon learn, on whether father Thomas (resolved and mostly stone-faced Donald Corren) can sell his clothing and dry goods store during a market recession. The plot began with discussion of the fates of the next generation, Annie and Nick, and we’re soon brought back to Thomas Scott’s “price” for the balance of the play. And what is the core challenge? Not whether class barriers can be overcome, but whether Thomas Scott, family man and earnest Protestant religious observer, will accept a generous offer for his business. This offer comes out of the blue from Scott’s old Sunday School teaching colleague Wicksteed (angular and delightful Mitch Greenberg), who is kind and generous, no longer a believer, and now represents a chain of dance halls. In the context of a general economic downturn, will Scott accept the offer that will fund school for his son, Parisian training for his daughter, and his old age with his wife, from a business that is an affront to his religious beliefs?
The family’s accommodation to the closed mind and rigid righteousness of the family patriarch is established as our story’s lesson. Thomas Scott meets with his neighbors George (lovely Mark Kenneth Smaltz who stumbles over the British accent in most of his speeches) and Tewkesbury (Jay Russell) to discuss the challenges of what is prejudice, what is conviction, what is paternal prerogative, and where a young woman’s aspirations fit into the mix. This story isn’t about limits placed on working class by power and money, these conversations clarify, but about protecting the patriarchy.
Father Thomas stands firm in his conviction that in selling his shop to a dance hall, he’d be doing the devil’s work. Wicksteed, the ex-Sunday school teacher, knows the religious framework Scott comes from and proposes a work around — Scott would be selling to Wicksteed, a middle man for the Courtney Company, and thus is not actually engaged in the business he finds offensive. But righteous (or is it bigoted?) Scott holds firm. Wicksteed makes his case for some time, then gives up with a laugh of resignation. He sums up Scott’s actions as a man a man of conviction out of step with modern times.
“You’re acting on prejudice, and for the sake of prejudice you are throwing away an opportunity of setting your wife free from the drudgery of a business that is going to pieces; you are tying that fine girl of yours up in a little back room like this; you are keeping your boy from a career which he shows himself fitted for.”
What’s lost in this plot is the arc of the children, where the playwright begins her story. (Though choreographed dance breaks bring the young energy delightfully back on stage from time to time.) Where Annie initially shows a streak of independence and indulgence of her old-fashioned old man, she ends up rejecting the offer of a chaste suitor Johnny Tite to go to Paris. Johnny admires Thomas’s “earnestness” while Annie now has fully signed onto the sale-as-selling-your-soul view. She has grown to respect her father’s resolve.
Several additional characters, while performed delightfully – Annie’s friend May Rufford (charming Ayana Workman), customer Lucy Griffin (compelling Arielle Yoder), Scott lodger Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize, set up as a kid of romantic partner perhaps for Annie), and Hartley Peters a friend of Tite’s from the bank (Josh Goulding) – don’t propel the plot. The energy of the production comes in large part from the delightfully choreographed dance sequences between scenes and during a scene when the parents are away animate the action, evoking a world of youthful energy.
This first of three Mint offerings inviting audiences to “Meet Miss Baker,” serves as a latter-work curtain-riser. Yet to come in this Mint mini Baker season are Partnership (1917), a comedy about a woman shopkeeper’s attempts to blend romance and business, and her first play Chains (1909) that dramatizes the different experiences and aspirations male and female clerks. Like the backwards storytelling structure of Merrily We Roll Along, currently enjoying a Fiasco Theater retooling in a six-performer revival of the musical with grand music and challenging reversed timeline, we may be working our way backwards to Elizabeth Baker’s best work. I’m on board.
© Martha Wade Steketee (February 20, 2019)
Playwright | Elizabeth Baker
Director | Jonathan Bank
Set Design | Vicki R. Davis
Costume Design | Hunter Kaczorowski
Lighting Design | Christian DeAngelis
Sound Design + Musical Arrangements| Jane Shaw
Choreography | Tracy Bersley
Dramaturgy | Amy Stoller
The Price of Thomas Scott through March 23, 2019, Mint Theater at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). Running time 90 minutes with no intermission.
Note: review later re-posted with permission at Theater Pizzazz on January 27, 2019.