The danger of rediscovering lost or forgotten plays is what might have seemed so daring in a previous generation may have dated badly and have little relevance today. In addition, casting against type in period plays may damage what the author intended. The third and last play in the Mint Theater Company’s “Meet Miss Baker” Project, the American premiere of the 1917 Partnership by British playwright Elizabeth Baker is problematic on both counts. While a play with four strong women characters may please the ladies, Partnership which one imagines was social commentary in its own time is now tame and innocuous. In addition, in Jackson Grace Gay’s over-refined production, the male characters are lacking in both charisma and punch though they are intended to be committed rivals.
The play also attempts to treat too many themes superficially and predictably. Kate Rolling, a modern independent Edwardian woman, has built up a successful fashion boutique in Brighton, England. Having never been in love, she is all business and ambition. When George Pillatt, the dry, phlegmatic owner of the most successful clothing store in town offers a partnership that includes an unromantic marriage of convenience she is ready to consider it. She tells her associate Maisie Glow, “I never expected anything great in the way of love.” Just at this moment, Pillatt introduces her to his acquaintance and former classmate Lawrence Fawcett who is visiting Brighton on a May walking trip.
Gene Gillette, Sara Haider and Joshua Echebiri in a scene from the Mint Theater Company’s production of Elizabeth Baker’s “Partnership” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Todd Cerveris)
Fawcett is one of those people who live life to the fullest, quoting Omar Khayyam and taking vacations when it suits him. He loves nature and natural beauty and won’t be denied their pleasures. He has sold out of a very successful corset business on the death of his father and invested in a risky new dye enterprise for which he has the highest hopes. He and Kate are smitten with each other as soon as they meet but the proprieties, her shop and the planned partnership keep them at a distance. A sudden tea party on the Downs brings all of the main characters together in a social situation. The play ends just as the foreshadowing suggests.
Baker flirts with ideas of marriage as a business arrangement, women who have chosen to work at something they love, choosing pleasure over money, and giving it all up for love, but doesn’t delve into any of these themes deeply. The women in the play, all of whom work in the shop, represent various types: Kate who has her head turned by love, Maisie Glow who is completely unsentimental and mercenary, the flirt Gladys Tracey who is seeing two men at the same time to disastrous consequences, and the level-headed Miss Blagg who sees through all of them. If we had been treated to witty, clever dialogue this could have been an enchanting drawing room comedy, typical of its time. However, while the play is comedic it has no laughs, bon mots or quotable lines.
The play actually treats the same plot and theme as the classic American comedy Holiday by Philip Barry which debuted on Broadway in 1928, just before the Great Depression. It hero Johnny Case lives by the objective that he will work steadily until he has made his first million at age 30 and then retire and go on holiday the rest of his life. Engaged to Julia Seton, an ambitious, rich socialite who does not believe he will go through with it, it is her sister Linda (played in the two famous film versions by Ann Harding and Katharine Hepburn) who falls hard for both him and his lifestyle. Baker’s play, while lively and cheerful, is a tepid version of this plot handled so much more astutely by Barry.
Another problem with the production is that Gay has directed the male characters in such a way that they are not really competing adversaries at all. While Gene Gillette’s George Pillatt is stuffy and judgmental, one thinks of the great character actors who would have made this a tour de force. Here, he never seems a real candidate for Kate’s hand in marriage. Joshua Echebiri’s Lawrence Fawcett is so retiring, diffident and low-key that we never see what Kate sees in him. One assumes that Echebiri can convey charisma but the director has clipped his wings. The script reveals that the two men are the same age (having been at school together) but Fawcett is played as a good deal younger. The final cast male member, Tom Patterson plays two minor roles quite differently, demonstrating a wide range.
The women are much better but the play leaves out too much backstory for us to really understand them. Sara Haider is charming as Kate Rolling, though at times she is allowed to seem distracted and preoccupied rather than deeply in love. Olivia Gilliatt is amusing as the no nonsense Maisie Glow though she pretty much plays her the same way throughout. As the flirtatious Gladys Tracey, Madeline Seidman shows spirit and vitality with the one boyfriend we are allowed to meet. Gina Daniels as the seamstress Miss Blagg has a droll air as the wisest of the four. Christiane Noll, most famous for Broadway musicals, confirms her talents playing an imperious and aristocratic customer who expects to be treated as her station implies.
The play has been given the Mint Theater Company’s usual elegant production. The two sets by Alexander Woodward, the very detailed backroom of the shop and the beautiful vista of the Downs in a copy of a magnificent painting by contemporary artist James Hart Dyke, are just what this Edwardian play needs. Kindall Almond’s eye-filling costumes may be absolutely period but are very unflattering to the actresses. The lighting by Mary Louise Geiger is the expected sunny illumination for beautiful May dates at the seashore.
The three plays in the “Meet Miss Baker” Project, The Price of Thomas Scott in 2019, Chains in 2022 and now Partnership in 2023 are quite different. While Partnership is the only one you could call a conventional comedy, and a romantic one at that, it offers the least social commentary of the three. At first seeming to be a study of the Shavian “New Woman,” it ultimately makes little or no statement about women’s roles or rights at the time. Women theatergoers may appreciate a period play which puts the female roles front and center, but this play is too bland and inoffensive to make much impact.
Partnership (through November 12, 2023)
Mint Theater Company
Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, 212-714-2442 ex. 45 or visit http://www.MintTheater.org
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including two intermissions