Thursday, February 28, 2019

172 (2018-2019): Review: BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK (seen February 27, 2019)

“Slaves with Lines!”

Am I an admirer of Lynn Nottage, the two-time Pulitzer-winning (for Ruined and Sweat), socially relevant playwright now enjoying a Residency 1 season at the Signature Theatre? Am I also fascinated  by old movies, the mostly black and white ones you see on TMC? And does film history and its sociological implications turn me on? The answer to all three is yes. So why, although I really looked forward to our meeting, did the Signature’s revival of Nottage’s 2011 By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a satirically serious look at Hollywood’s treatment of black actresses, do so only half way?
Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Inspired by the careers of early black film actresses, like Hattie McDaniel and Theresa Harris, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark begins in 1933. Aspiring black actress Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes, Is God Is), young and attractive, is the friend and maid of the hard-drinking, air-headed, Jean Harlow-ish, platinum-blonde Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber, Wicked).
Jessica Frances Dukes, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gloria, “America’s Little Sweetie Pie,” who’s anxious to break into serious roles, lives in a fashionable art deco home, while Vera shares a plain, small flat with two other black actresses, the plump Lottie McBride (Heather Alicia Simms, Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine) and the slenderly sexy Anna Mae Simpkins (Carra Patterson, Jitney). The latter’s so fair-skinned she passes herself off as a heavily accented Brazilian sexpot on a date with a German director, Maximillian Von Oster (Manoel Felciano, Sweeney Todd). Vera, meanwhile, has a flirtation with Leroy Barksdale (Warner Miller), a slickly dressed chauffeur and musician.
Warner Miller, Jessica Frances Dukes. Photo: Joan Marcus.
During a party at Gloria’s home, serviced by Lottie and Vera, dressed as maids, the egotistical Von Oster—accompanied by the be-gowned Anna Mae—quarrels with the crass studio head, Mr. Slasvick (David Turner, Sunday in the Park with George), over how the slaves are to be depicted (happy or downtrodden) in the director’s ambitious new antebellum plantation movie, The Belle of New Orleans.
David Turner, Jenni Barber, Carra Patterson, Manoel Felciano, Jessica Frances Dukes. Photo: Joan Marcus.

David Turner, Manoel Felciano. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Hoping to land parts in this pre-Hays Code film in which the blacks will have richer roles (“slaves with lines!”) than those of the slaves they typically get in such projects, Lottie and Vera put on fake accents and slumping postures to prove to the director they’ve got the beaten, slave-descended, Negro “authenticity” he’s seeking, i.e., centuries “of oppression in the hunch of their shoulders.”
Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Act Two of the two hour and 15-minute play shifts gears grindingly, not unlike the recent Slave Play. It begins with the closing scene of Von Oster’s The Belle of New Orleans, a stereotypically sentimental deathbed scene, filmed in black and white. In it, the octoroon heroine, played by Gloria, passes away as her comforting servant, played by Vera, who—in her star-making but career-shackling performance—watches over her. Standing by are characters played by Anna Mae and Lottie.
Warner Miller. Photo: Joan Marcus.
We’re watching it because it’s being screened as part of a 2003 symposium called “Rediscovering Vera Stark: The Legacy of The Belle of New Orleans,” in which two pretentious, perfectly-named, bickering discussants, journalist-poet-performer Afua Assata Ejobo (Patterson) and media-gender studies professor Carmen Levy-Green (Simms), are hosted by self-important film maven Herb Forester (Miller).
Carra Patterson, Heather Alicia Simms, Warner Miller. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The panel’s comically pretentious discussion of Vera and whatever happened to her mingles with their commentary on a TV show from 1973—40 years after the movie. Hosted by the Johnny Carson-like Brad Donovan (Turner), it features the last recorded appearance of Vera Stark, now a flamboyantly dressed, antiquated, tippling actress-singer, who sounds like Katharine Hepburn but whose talent Hollywood neglected to develop. Dukes, required to overact in Act One, redeems herself brilliantly as Act Two’s doomed star-who-should-have-been.
David Turner, Jessica Frances Dukes, Manoel Felciano. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The innocuous interview fails to explore Stark’s important story, and, in the interests of popular appeal rather than meaningful discussion, provides a surprise, not altogether welcome, visit from the self-aggrandizing Gloria. Sitting by is another guest, Peter Rhys-Davies (Felciano), a zonked-out British rock star who does all he can to keep from falling out of his chair.
Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Finally, the play concludes with a flashy montage, designed by Katherine Freer, of noteworthy actresses of color, like McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen. whose many faces go by so fast it becomes impossible to recognize them.

Nottage’s intelligence, wit, and craftsmanship are writ large throughout the play, but its stylistic leaps along the spectrum from farce to realism do little to draw one into its world and lots to keep one at a distance. Nor does director Kamilah Forbes’s attractively mounted but barely nuanced production manage to find a tone that consistently ties its disparate scenes together.

With a few exceptions, the approach is forced farce, seeking laughs by egregiously overstated comic acting, and excessive shouting, which pulls focus from Nottage’s ideas. It’s the kind of thing that Spike Lee might have pulled off; instead, like the improvised audition scene, it comes off here more like a cartoon of a cartoon. (It’s also yet another production demonstrating my pet peeve about the lost art of onstage cigarette smoking.)

Set designer Clint Ramos avoids the full use of the very wide Irene Diamond Stage by introducing a space-delimiting, semicircular cyclorama to partially surround a turntable holding expertly realized locales: movie-star chic, Depression-period digs, a sound stage exterior, and 70s talk-show overkill. Dede M. Ayite’s costumes offer period-crossing eye candy, Matt Frey’s lighting ties it all together, and both Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design and Daniel Kluger’s music make solid contributions.  

If you’re uninterested in this production or unable to attend, you can get Nottage’s point much more succinctly by clicking on two dryly amusing, tongue-in-cheek, metatheatrical websites, Finding Vera Stark, credited to the faux Prof. Levy-Green, with its faux-biography of Vera and faux-trailer for The Belle of New Orleans, and Rediscovering Vera Stark, narrated by Peter Bogdanovich who's credited as the faux-Herb Forrester. One wonders if a similarly straight-faced comedic production might not have provided a more appropriate theatrical meeting with By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 10


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

171 (2018-2019): Review: RANDOM ACTS (seen February 26, 2018)

“Guardian Angels”

Onstage, Renata Hinrichs, playwright/actress/
dancer, looks about 40 in the simple, plaid, jumper-style dress (designed by Deshon Elem Delta) she wears in Random Acts. Actually, she’s in her mid-50s, since the autobiographical story she tells in her sweet, but not particularly newsworthy, one-woman memory play, is of being in first grade when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen,
Random Acts, first performed at the F.A.B. Women@tbg, and seen at the United Solo Theater Festival in 2014, is now at TBG on W. 36th Street, where Renata’s memories are acted out over the course of a brisk hour and 15 minutes. These consist mainly of her being a white girl encountering racial strife as a child in grade-school and later, in high school, and of life lessons learned along the way.
Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen.
Hinrichs tells her tale on a bare stage backed only by a vertical flat of multicolored squares (designed by Chika Shimizu), with only a bench on which to now and then sit. In a program note, she declares that New York’s post-9/11 turmoil jogged her memories of Chicago’s civil rights disturbances following Dr. King’s death, leading to other recollections that she subsequently wrote down and performed.
Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen.
Speaking to us both in her adult and childhood voices, this talented artist smoothly jumps from character to character, including her parents, her schoolmates, a boy she dated, and so on, altering her speech and body movements to do so. Occasionally, little Renata, an aspiring ballerina, bursts out dancing. In one bit, she performs in her room along with a recording of Julie Andrews, her idol, singing “The Sound of Music,” a choreographically hammy version of a little girl dreaming her heart out to her favorite song.
Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen.
As that number suggests, much of the Random Acts provides the nostalgic background for a recreation of Hinrichs’s early life as the daughter of a Lutheran minister and his prim and proper wife. Hinrichs’s account describes the events after the family moved in 1966 from Boston to Chicago, where her father, replacing a racist minister, was assigned to a white church on the South Side, very close to Ashland Avenue, a street dividing white and black neighborhoods, rife with racial tensions.

Her father is an idealistic liberal of great integrity whose resistance to racism and “God loves everybody” philosophy alienates some congregants, as when people walk out when a black baby is baptized. Her mother is a woman tensely aware of the need to keep her family and home under spic and span control, the kind who constantly warns Renata to behave or get “the living daylights” beat out of her.

But, once she’s enrolled in public school, even in kindergarten, little Renata can’t avoid being bullied by resentful black kids. One painful incident is resolved by the intercession of an older black boy whose identity she never learns. When she tells her dad about it, he comforts her, not only by trying to explain why people are biased against people of other colors, but by calling the boy a “guardian angel,” such as we all have in times of need.
Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen.
Such theological platitudes may not resolve questions like why Dr. King is later murdered, but, as an explanation for the influence of random acts of kindness, it nonetheless remains important to Renata.

Hinrichs also describes the trauma of the racial violence that erupted in Chicago following Dr. King’s death, which seared her for life. Nonetheless, she remained so colorblind that, in 1978, she appears not to have realized the potential for trouble in her relationship with Willy, the captain of her high school football team and editor of the school paper.

When she went to pick him up at his home for their Homecoming Dance date, his mother’s nasty, “Willy, there’s some white girl here for you,” was never to be forgotten. Nor was Willy’s own rudeness toward her that night; his bad behavior needn’t be interpreted through a racial filter but it does allow for a touching moment later in Renata’s life when Facebook appears on the scene, providing a nice touch of sentiment that displays the actress’s emotional depth.

Director Jessi D. Hill serves the play well, both in her staging, which makes good use of the small space, and by her incorporation of a rather extensive sound design (by Matt Otto), using pop (“Downtown,” “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” etc.), and church music, and considerably varied lighting design by Daisy Long.

Perhaps the most interesting slant the material takes is its concern with a white girl being on the receiving end of racist attitudes, and of a child’s loss of innocence but not her faith in human goodness. Random Acts raises valid issues, and nicely captures Hinrichs’s recall of a specific time and place. As drama, though, it’s rather thin, like the threads of a spider web, lovely to look at but so fragile it doesn’t take much effort for it to crumble.

The Barrow Group
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through March 2


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Friday, February 22, 2019

169 (2018-2019): Review: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (seen February 21, 2019)

“Still Rolling”

Ever since its massive flop on Broadway in 1981 (52 previews; 16 performances), Merrily We Roll Along (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, and original direction by Hal Prince), has refused to die, or like old generals, simply fade away. Sondheim is such a gigantic figure in modern musical theatre history that even his lesser efforts inspire legions of fanboys and fangirls, and every fan-gender in between, to shout for their revival. None more so than Merrily, whose checkered history has made it a cult favorite. 
The show, with its numerous national and international revivals, has undergone multiple tweaks to the book and score. New York alone has seen a well-received Encores! rendition in 2012, an Off-Broadway version at the York in 1994, and, now, a modestly successful, greatly scaled-down, Off-Broadway revival directed by Noah Brody for the Fiasco Theater at the Laura Pels Theatre, under the aegis of the Roundabout Theatre Company. This, I must confess, is my first experience of the show, so I won’t compare it to any of its predecessors.

Fiasco—whose critically praised revival of Into the Woods at this same venue in 2015 I missed—has gained a quality reputation for its original rethinking of established material, as in their Two Gentlemen of Verona (2015), so it’s no surprise that they’d take an unconventional approach to Merrily. Most radically, they've reduced the company from over two dozen in the 1981 show to a minuscule six, three of them playing two or three roles, with many minor characters gone with the wind. Surprisingly, the concept mostly works, although there are several confusing moments when it doesn’t.

Sondheim, by the way, offered his help and support during the show’s creative process.

Merrily We Roll Along is a very loose adaptation of a well-received 1934 comedy-drama by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that ran for 155 performances and was certainly not the “flop” Martin Gottfried calls it in his More Broadway Musicals. While remaining a story about theatre figures, the musical version covers the years 1980-1957 instead of 1934-1916, changes the characters' names, alters their artistic occupations (for example, the original’s playwright, Richard, becomes Frank, a composer), uses different locales, and takes many other liberties. Interestingly, some lines from the original have been inserted into the Fiasco version.

But, while using a roughly similar storyline, it maintains Kaufman and Hart’s most significant innovation, showing us two decades in the lives of its characters in reverse chronological order.

Such reverse-order plotting, which begins with the end result of the characters’ trajectory and then returns to the events that led to it, has become more familiar over the years, as in plays like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. In 1934, it was considered quite experimental for a play, in spite of its increasing familiarity in movie flashbacks. Burns Mantle, who chose the Kaufman-Hart play as one of the 10 best of the 1934-1935 season, wrote:

There have been dream plays in which the sleeper’s consciousness was projected through past experiences, or through fantastic imaginings. But even the recovered story employing the flashback screen method, as did Elmer Rice’s On Trial, had their beginnings in the present and came back in the end to their starting point, as by the rules of musical composition, a song or a symphony must end on the key in which it has begun.

Sondheim and Furth, however, cheat a bit by adding a prologue of sorts, set in 1980, in which we briefly meet the three core characters. These are Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld), a composer turned movie producer, whose marriage is on the rocks; Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan), a playwright/lyricist now in therapy, and Mary Flynn (Jessie Austrian), a wise-cracking, alcoholic novelist turned critic (whose 1934 original was inspired by Dorothy Parker). Each gives a capsule account of how, regardless of their apparent success, they’ve become disillusioned, personally and professionally, concluding with each reciting, “If I could go back to the beginning.” 
The script then takes us to a coke-snorting, booze-swilling, Hollywood party at the home of Frank, who’s sold out on the ideals of his youth to become a mediocre but rich movie producer. His wife, Gussie Carnegie (Emily Young), an aging Broadway star unhappy she’s not in Frank’s new movie, is disgusted that instead of her, it stars Frank’s young mistress, Meg (Brittany Bradford, who also plays Frank's first wife, Beth).

As the play slips further back into the past, we discover the background to the tragic culmination of Frank and Gussie’s aspirations via scenes involving the dissolution of Frank’s partnership with Charley, his musical theatre collaborator. Although the men have written highly profitable Broadway musicals, Charley feels betrayed when Frank’s grasping for money and fame leads him to abandon his artistic ambitions.

Time keeps sliding past, each year announced by a character, as we watch the highly promising careers and professional and personal friendships of Charley, Frank, and Mary fall apart, develop, and begin, in that order, with the final scene set in 1957, when Mary first meets the fellows on the rooftop of a building in which they all live. 
Obviously, showing the events in this backward order emphasizes the irony implicit in the evolution of their lives. It also maps the difficult path of collaboration and friendship, not to speak of the conflict between personal ideals and the pragmatism of reality, a theme that would have had particular resonance during the Depression, when the original was born.

Despite a lively pace that keeps things rolling for an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, proficient staging, and nimble and creative choreography by Lorin Latarro (for actors who move well but aren’t dancers), nothing can disguise the thinness of the characters. Each has one or two dominant traits that vary little through the evening.

And, while it’s obvious how business issues drive a career-influencing wedge between Charley and Frank, Mary’s carrying a torch for Frank (quickly mentioned in passing) is never explored as a reason for her post-bestseller writing career to have tanked. Overall, the characters have such solipsistic, charmless personalities that cheering or sympathizing with them is barely an option. 
None of the performances, despite their technical adeptness by players who seem to be more actor-singers than singer-actors, possess the magical appeal that suggests future stardom. Steinfeld, in particular, is miscast as a leading man, and Young’s Gussie lacks the diva-like glamour the part demands.

Technically, the individual numbers are worthy of applause, several demonstrating virtuosic mastery of Sondheim’s extremely difficult verbal demands. The one that sticks most in mind is Narayan’s performance of Charley’s ultra-complex “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” which is probably an eternal show-stopper.

Sondheim’s tricky score, which contains such perpetually listenable numbers as “Old Friends,” and, perhaps the show’s most oft-recorded melody, “Not a Day Goes By,” is filled with dazzling lyrics, which the company renders with aplomb.

Sondheim’s tunes are written to express they lyrics, which they do in devilishly clever ways. There’s even a scene where Sondheim, obviously citing his own experience, has a producer urge Frank to write songs the audience can hum. As this production, orchestrated by Alexander Gemignani, and performed by an eight-member orchestra, makes clear, though, Sondheim’s melodies may not be conventional but they catch your ear and, with each listening, grow increasingly habit-forming. Which isn’t to deny that some aren’t top-drawer Sondheim. 
Brody’s production takes place within Derek McLane’s beautifully designed vision of a prop master's paradise, with tiers of shelving curving across the stage, holding neatly packed assortments of all sorts of things for potential theatrical use. A large upstage separation suggests either a concrete wall or a background for scenic effects, like a shimmering curtain. There also are alcoves for the actors to sit in and watch from when not in a scene. Furnishings, of course, are shifted swiftly by the cast itself. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting distinguishes one locale from the other, regardless of the general lack of familiar markers. 
Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton’s costumes are attractive but, regardless of the many changes, seem relatively period-neutral rather than making a big effort to stress fashion differences. For a story emphasizing time differences, the lack of more distinct, perhaps mildly satirical, fashion differences is a drawback. The same is true for hair, male as well as female; you won’t, for example, see mustaches, beards, and sideburns come and go. 
Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) hit the nail on the head when trying to assess why even those who liked the original play had trouble sympathizing with it. His words describe the play, not the musical, but are still worth quoting: 

Here’s this playwright who writes a play and it’s a big success. Then he writes another play and it’s a big hit, too. All his plays are big successes. All the actresses in them are in love with him, and he has a yacht and beautiful home in the country. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and he makes a million dollars. Now the problem the play propounds is this: How did the poor son of a bitch ever get in this jam. (Quoted in Scott Meredith’s George S. Kaufman and His Friends.)

Laura Pels Theatre: Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through April 7


Sunday, February 17, 2019

168 (2018-2019): Review: THE PRICE OF THOMAS SCOTT (seen February 16, 2019)

“For What Will It Profit a Man”

Ever since 1995, when Jonathan Bank became its artistic director, the Mint Theatre (founded in 1992) has made a name for itself by reviving forgotten plays, mainly British or American. A few once had something of a reputation but most came and went without much fanfare and then drifted downwards to the theatre’s version of Davy Jones’s locker.  

Emma Geer, Nick LaMedica. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
While few such plays, even in the Mint’s generally well-respected productions, prove to be overlooked masterpieces, most have had historical interest for theatre buffs and several have proved surprisingly vibrant. The Mint’s latest, Elizabeth Baker’s (1876-1972) The Price of Thomas Scott, fits the first description but, despite several moments of dramatic interest, fails to match the second.

Very little of substance is readily available about Baker’s life and work. Although active for a considerable span of years, none of her dozen produced plays ever were seen in New York. Among major reference works, neither the Modern World Drama: An Encyclopedia nor the much more expansive, two-volume Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama, among others of their sort, so much as mentions her. Clark and Freedley’s comprehensive A History of Modern Drama (1938), written while she was still active, gives her a paragraph, but the best Baker summary I could find in the limited time available is the one in the program for the Mint revival, written by Maya Cantu.

Cantu notes that Baker's plays, which occasionally received raves, "focused attention on the lives of London's clerks, shopgirls, and suburban strivers," while exploring "the constraints of class, gender, and social convention upon individual agency," 
Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren, Emma Geer. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The Price of Thomas Scott, whose only performance was in 1913 at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, starring Sybil Thorndike, is not enough to gauge Baker’s achievement. Theatregoers, however, will have more opportunities this year and next as the Mint is presenting the play as part of its ambitious “Meet Miss Baker” project. This will include not only readings of her work but, in the summer of 2020, overlapping productions of two of Baker plays, Partnership and Chains, at two Theatre Row venues. The latter, which received a lauded London revival in 2007, is her chief claim to fame.
Emma Geer, Andrew Fallaize. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
In fact, Clark and Freedley thought so little of Baker’s oeuvre that, with Chains in mind, they called her a “one-play author (to all intents and purposes).” The one other Baker play they bother to mention in passing is The Price of Thomas Scott, which, while it’s certainly of interest as a peep at what might have been considered thoughtful in 1913, now seems dated and its resolution decidedly disturbing.
Andrew Fallaize, Emma Geer. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The Price of Thomas Scott is a problem comedy-drama in which the central tropes are those old conflicts between conscience and commerce, religion and secularism, and conservatism and liberalism. The play also sets the power of a willfully old-fashioned patriarch against the needs and desires of his up-to-date children. Further, it features a leading female character who, while sharing features with the New Women emerging at the time, comes off as a much more wishy-washy than others of her theatrical cohort, like those created by Bernard Shaw. Much of it actually reflects Baker's life as the daughter of devout Nonconformists who like the family in The Price of Thomas Scott were drapers, and who likewise held the theatre and like divertisements in very low esteem. Baker herself didn't see a play until she was nearly 30.

Thomas Scott (Donald Corren) owns a failing draper’s shop in a London suburb. Each of his family members is held back from achieving their dreams by the lack of money. Daughter Annie (Emma Geer), a talented milliner who creates stylish women’s hats, wants to go to Paris to advance her career; 15-year-old Leonard (Nick LaMedica) yearns to get a scholarship to a prestigious school, if only he could afford the additional expenses; and wife Ellen (Tracy Sallows) would like to give up her shop duties to buy a home in Tunbridge Wells.
Emma Geer, Arielle Yoder, Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Each of the play’s three acts, played without intermission over 90 minutes, is set in the same large room of the shop, where we meet Annie’s girlfriends, May Rufford (Ayana Workman) and Lucy Griffin (Arielle Yoder), and the Scott’s neighbors, Tewkesbury (Jay Russell) and George Rufford (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), May’s father.
Andrew Fallaize, Josh Goulding. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Other principals include Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize), an awkward young man who boards with the Scotts and is in love with Annie; Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding), Johnny’s friend, a dapper young banker who takes lodgings with the Scotts; and Wicksteed (Mitch Greenberg), a businessman and old friend of Scott’s who wants to buy the well-located shop.
Jay Russell, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, Donald Corren. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Baker spends much of the time establishing these people, focusing on the contrast between the younger ones, who want to enjoy the then popular pastime of dancing in public dance halls, and the older folks, who differ on whether or not dancing (or similar forms of public expression, like theatre acting) are innocent or iniquitous. To these people, a girl dressed as a boy to play Viola in Twelfth Night is nothing short of shocking. Still, one young man boldly declares, "These religious people sicken me." The movie and show Footloose had a similar foundation.
Josh Goulding, Andrew Fallaize, Ayana Workman, Emma Geer, Nick LaMedica. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
So happy are the the young folks to kick up their heels that a scene in Act One shows them pairing off to waltz. With Leonard struggling at the piano to pick out a tune and keep time, the others begin dancing somewhat clumsily until—in a dreamlike coup de théâtre choreographed by Tracy Bersley—they suddenly glide gracefully about to recorded waltz music before reality intrudes, and the dream ends as the adults come home.
Josh Goulding, Emma Geer, Andrew Fallaize, Ayana Workman. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Thomas Scott, however, despite being a loving dad and respected citizen, is a hymn-humming, religious zealot and temperance supporter who sees the devil in dancing and only reluctantly overcomes his puritanism to allow Annie to attend a local dance. This pious member of the local Methodist church, whose young preacher he greatly admires, is having trouble finding a buyer for his business until he gets the offer from Wicksteed, who gives him $25 down on a $500 pound purchase.
Emma Geer, Nick LaMedica. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The news brings instant joy to one and all until Scott learns that Wicksteed is buying the shop on behalf of the Courtneys, a firm that wishes to add it to its string of respectable dance halls. In Courtney dance halls, not the only alcohol allowed on the premises is what you bring from the outside, and you’re thrown out at the first sign of inebriation.
Donald Corren, Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Scott, whose only sin is smoking (oddly, nary a fag is lit during the entire play), wrestles with the need to wrench his family out of looming poverty (£500 in 2013 would be around £56,000/$72,000 today) and fulfill their dreams.
Emma Geer, Ayana Workman. Photo: Todd Cerveris. 
Wicksteed, anxious to buy the property, makes every reasonable appeal to the narrow-minded Scott, not neglecting to call him a religious bigot. Scott, doubtful at first, believes—even though his involvement with the place ceases the minute he doesn’t own it—that selling the store is the same as selling his soul. Will Scott prove the truth behind someone else's observation, "Every man has his price"?

The Price of Thomas Scott is, until its ending, more light comedy (albeit with only scattered laughs) than drama; that ending, though, is likely to leave a sour taste in your mouth. That’s not only because of Scott’s unilateral decision-making but because of the disappointingly innocuous reaction to it of his wife and daughter.

The latter is a particular letdown, not only because it betrays Annie's presumed independence of mind, but because her surprising choice is so damned foolish, regardless of the ideal to which it aspires. Baker’s point may have been to honor integrity at any cost but, given what that integrity supports in this case, I suspect most theatregoers then and now would have sided with Wicksteed. Annie comes off seeming as foolish a martyr as her father.
Tracy Sallows, Emma Geer. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
And then, almost as if director Banks and company realized that this conclusion is a downer, the younger cast members step out of the curtain call to deliver an anachronistic, upbeat, leg-kicking, Charleston-type routine performed to a swinging jazz accompaniment. The only sense it makes is as a ploy to get the audience watching these dance-hungry characters to feel better after how the play ended. Or perhaps it's an expression of the company's urge to stick its finger in Thomas Scott's eye.
Mitch Greenberg, Donald Corren. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Vicki R. Davis’s realistic shop interior, ceiling and all, and adorned here and there with women’s hats and dresses (on tailor’s dummies), is effective, Christian DeAngelis provides expert illumination (with nice colors for the dances), Jane Shaw’s sound design is up to her high standards, and Hunter Kaczorowski provides a decent simulacrum of 1913 clothing.
Donald Corren, Tracy Sallows. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Banks’s production, polite and pleasant enough, slogs along with lots of small talk about women's hats and necklines but few emotionally rousing moments. It’s all pleasant enough but it often drags. And the acting is uneven.
Mitch Greenberg, Tracy Sallows, Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Donald Corren’s Scott is reliably believable but lacks fire, which could also be said of most of the cast, not least of them being Emma Geer’s Annie, who could use a jolt of feminist spirit. Mitch Greenberg does best as Wicksteed, making us want to shake his hand for offering such reasonable, persuasive arguments to the obdurate Scott. I did sometimes wish he’d be a little less nice and a bit more frustrated by Scott’s reactions.

Hunting for lost treasure can pay off when precious metals and jewels are recovered. But sometimes you have to admit that your discoveries are unsalvageable and that all the polish in the world won’t remove the rust and barnacles. The Price of Thomas Scott might better have been left in the Davy Jones locker of moldering scripts.

Beckett Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 23