Sunday, November 12, 2023

Theater Review: Elizabeth Baker’s ‘Partnership,’ at New York’s Mint Theater

Like many New York area theatergoers, I have been slow getting back to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows even as the dangers of COVID-19 have receded without fully disappearing. Before March 2020, I had sometimes taken in a couple of shows a month. 

What a difference the pandemic made! This past spring’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House starring Jessica Chastain was the first I had attended in three years, and it satisfied my curiosity about this much-discussed show without making me entirely glad I had spent so much for a small-scale production.

I felt much better after seeing the latest Off-Broadway production by the Mint Theater. The third and last installment in a trilogy by English playwright Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962), Partnership, which closed this weekend, accomplished what the company has done so successfully so often throughout its nearly 30 years of existence: bring to light past dramas and comedies that have slipped, often unjustly, into the mists of history.

Superficially, Baker delivered what audiences in the WWI era (and, actually, ours) craved: a wry, gentle romantic comedy. But not for her the drawing-room comedy genre that made Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham, and Noel Coward the toast of the West End.

Instead, in class-conscious Britain, in 13 plays over two decades, she limned the aspirations of middle-class strivers—especially women who, against all odds, were trying to gain a foothold in a male-dominated business world. 

Even as the government was confronting the challenge of suffragettes, Baker was posing questions even more fundamental than politics to women: without men, how they could expect to survive on their own, and what might they have to sacrifice to achieve a life without want? And, looking beyond that, what constituted a fulfilled life?

Herself a member of the aspiring class (a stenographer and typist who imbibed dramatic construction by typing the works of fashionable playwrights of the day), Baker was a realist rather than a romantic. She found little poetic in the lives of characters wholly invested in the struggle for personal autonomy.  But she was honest in depicting characters too little seen on the stages of her time.

Partnership, first staged in England in 1917 (with future film great Ronald Colman playing a bit part), is a good example of her stagecraft and concerns, and it gets a second wind here in the United States under the direction of Jackson Grace Gay.

Kate Rolling, along with her sharp and saucy friend and second-in-command Maisie Glow, is making a go of it in her small fashionable milliner’s shop in Brighton, even for a demanding clientele. The attractive and successful young women are also getting attention from male suitors, with the two received a combined four marriage proposals in the past four weeks.

Then Kate receives, from the owner of the largest store in town, yet another, but this time with a twist a business and personal merger proposal: a suggestion, from an especially acquisitive businessman who’s just bought the property next door, that the two combine forces in a partnership that would allow Kate to expand. 

Part of the arrangement—already spelled out in a formal contract by the enterprising George Pillatt—is that Kate marry him.

Pillatt can’t imagine how anything could matter more to a businessperson than the slightest opportunity to make another sale. Any woman accepting his hand in marriage could be assured of a financially secure future, but hardly a warm and happy one.

For a while, it seems that this marriage of convenience is enough for Kate. But when she accepts an invitation to visit the nearby “Downs” or hills from free-spirited investor Lawrence Fawcett, she becomes of the possibility of a different lifestyle and different life companion.

All of this occurs in the face of an incredulous Pillatt and a frustrated Maisie, who advises her friend that if it’s romance and excitement she craves, she should have a man on the side.

Sara Haider has made her Off-Broadway debut an auspicious one. In accentuating how the intelligent, driven Kate Rolling finds herself unexpectedly intoxicated by the spirit of freedom and love, she has put herself on track for a future role as a self-possessed Shakespeare comic heroine like Rosalind and Portia. 

I wasn’t able to see Olivia Gilliatt’s performance in the Mint’s production last year of Baker’s Chains, but judging by her work here she appears to have a real affinity for the playwright, lending a winning spice and joie de vivre to a character who, in less capable hands, might have sounded simply dour and cynical.

The men fare less well, in admittedly more constricted roles. Gene Gillette at least heightens the stakes by depicting Pillatt as a businessman that one disappoints only at one’s peril, but Joshua Echebiri cannot achieve a natural evolution from the reticent Fawcett of early scenes to the more unbuttoned down at the Downs.

It should also be stated here that, though confined to a small space in New York’s Theater Row, the Mint has consistently used its limited resources imaginatively. In the current production, that is owing to scenic designer Alexander Woodward, who has adapted a James Hart Dyke painting into a beguiling backdrop suggesting the rolling green coastal landscape of the Downs that turns Kate’s head around.

Though it has also run less well-known plays by famous authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, D.H. Lawrence, and Leo Tolstoy, the Mint Theater has performed a particular service by mounting several productions by once-acclaimed dramatists who’ve fallen into obscurity (e.g., George Kelly) or who have never really enjoyed their moment in the sun (Teresa Deavy, N.C. Hunter).

 Elizabeth Baker belongs to the latter category, and it was good to see her Partnership receive its American premiere more than a century after it captivated London audiences got their first, fleeting glimpses of it.

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