Over the next few months, the estimable Mint Theater, committed to rediscovering lost theatrical treasures, is producing three works by English playwright Elizabeth Baker. The first is The Price of Thomas Scott, a 1913 comedy-drama that features a top-notch ensemble of New York actors in a handsomely designed staging directed by Jonathan Bank.
Baker, a younger contemporary of George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville-Barker, was a successful dramatist before and after World War I. Though she has largely been forgotten, Baker’s plays contradict the popular notion that Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 drama A Taste of Honey was the first time the literary voice of a workaday woman made a significant mark on British theater.
Thomas Scott (Donald Corren) owns a drapery business in an economically depressed London suburb. While he and his family aren’t, strictly speaking, working class, their hold on the lowest rung of the mid-section of Britain’s social ladder is precarious. The shop isn’t faring well and things in their neighborhood aren’t likely to improve. To meet their bills, the family depends on rent from boarders and daughter Annie’s sideline in the decoration of ladies’ hats.
Not long out of high school, Annie (Emma Geer) is a morally upright but fun-loving soul with aspirations to learn her trade in Paris. “I’d . . . go into a first-class milliner’s shop and learn the thing properly,” she confides to her brother Leonard (Nick LaMedica); “and then I’d come back here and … have a shop … in Bond Street or Sloane Street, and I’d simply bust up the town.”
The play takes place over a few days during which Thomas considers an unexpected opportunity to sell the building that’s both his shop and family home. The money being offered promises to improve the Scotts’ circumstances exponentially. As Peters (Josh Goulding), one of the Scotts’ acquaintances, remarks, it’s a sum that would “put them into clover.”
At first, Thomas is jubilant. The money means that Annie will be able to pursue her ambitions; Leonard can matriculate at a first-class high school; and Thomas and wife Ellen (Tracy Sallows) may retire to a pleasanter locale. But his view darkens (as does the mood of the play) when the would-be purchaser turns out to be the Courtney Company, which operates public dance halls.
The Scotts are fundamentalists; and Thomas, a pillar of their neighborhood chapel, is as zealous and joyless as an Old Testament prophet. In his opinion, dancing, like the theater, “holds out temptation to the weak.” Even in the relatively genteel confines of a Courtney establishment, dancing is a grievous sin; and profiting from the Courtney Company’s expansion is unthinkable.
Peters suggests that “every man has his price,” and predicts that, after contemplating the offer, Thomas will relinquish his objections and sell. To his family’s dismay (and the neighbors’ derision), the obstinate Thomas defies the every-man-has-his-price theory.
The fact that Baker’s protagonist never questions the merits of his convictions — or prejudices — makes The Price of Thomas Scott a vexing 90 minutes of theater. Perhaps a spectator who shares Thomas’s unbending sentiments could empathize with this static character; but such fanatics are rare in New York theater audiences.
Director Bank and choreographer Tracy Bersley have inserted a dreamlike dance sequence in Act I of Baker’s play. Considering the script’s shortcomings, no one’s likely to blame them for this liberty. Dancing is called for at that point in the story but, in the Mint version, the lighting shifts to soft hues, the tinkling piano gives way to a full-bodied musical arrangement by sound designer Jane Shaw, and the actors seem to fly around the stage in a glorious fantasia set to a seductive beat. It’s an intoxicating moment, like a dream ballet in a 1950s movie musical; and it gets a welcome reprise in the curtain call. The sequence fits with Baker’s theme of suppressed dreams and aspirations, but it would probably come as a surprise to the playwright.
The Price of Thomas Scott hasn’t been staged since the premiere engagement at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, England. It’s more curiosity than treasure, but this long mislaid work is evidence of Baker’s knack for dialogue that’s vivid and arresting, even in the stodgier sequences of her narrative. Listening to the Mint’s fine, well-balanced cast, one can’t help pondering why this obscure writer was a figure to reckon with in British drama, at least for a while, and what her more successful plays may contain. The Mint’s ongoing season of Baker plays may shed light on those questions.
The Price of Thomas Scott, presented by the Mint Theater, plays through March 23 at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Wednesday, March 20. For information and tickets, visit minttheater.org.