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