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A group of people in a room

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Gene Gillette, Sara Haider, Joshua Echebiri (Photo: Todd Cerveris Photography)



Reviewed by Marc Miller


The Mint Theater Company appears unable to make up its mind these days: Theater Row or City Center? Theater Row or City Center? Its latest revival, Elizabeth Baker's Partnership, switches back to Theater Row, but what never changes is the company's mission: expose its audience to well-written old plays, with frequently unfamiliar titles and authors, and stage them in faithful renderings with capable casts. This, with Partnership, it accomplishes handily.

Baker (1875-1962) is a recent favorite with the Mint, which staged her The Price of Thomas Scott in 2019 and Chains last year. As a piece of writing, Partnership is probably ahead of Thomas Scott and a little behind Chains, which was a thorough and arresting look at the difficult life choices of lower-middle-class Londoners. Partnership explores a similar theme, among a somewhat higher class of people, in a very different venue.

We're in Brighton, in the back room of Rolling's, a struggling couturier; Alexander Woodward's set is suitably shallow and cluttered, with a wheeled ladder, a well-dressed mannequin the shop's staff have nicknamed Sally, and a primitive intercom. It's run by Kate Rolling (Sara Haider), the very capable young manager. She's assisted by saleslady/best pal Maisie (Olivia Gilliatt), seamstress Miss Blagg (Gina Daniels), who's smart and always equipped with a tart remark, and clerk Gladys (Madeline Seidman), engaged to Jack (Tom Patterson) but perpetually unhappy in love. There's a lot of lively shop talk, and the coddling of well-to-do customer Lady Smith-Carr-Smith (Christiane Noll); they've been trying to attract a better breed of client, and Lady S-C-S is tight with a duchess.

But all that's eclipsed with the arrival of George Pillatt (Gene Gillette), who's almost never addressed by his first name. Pillatt is a much more successful purveyor of women's fashion, unctuous and businesslike and uninterested in femininity beyond what femininity wears; maybe he's gay. Nonetheless, he has a double proposal for the up-and-coming Kate: form a business partnership with him, helping him run the emporium next door he's about to buy, and marry him.

A person and person in suits

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Sara Haider, Gene Gillette (Photo: Todd Cerveris Photography)

Why he'd insist on the latter sort of partnership is one loose thread Baker fails to tie together. His and Kate's relationship is an amusing one, though: so all-business that when she finally accepts his proposal and they move in to seal it with a kiss, both think, Nah. By then, other thoughts have begun to occupy Kate's head. Most particularly, she's been paying increasing attention to Lawrence Fawcett (Joshua Echebiri), a visiting school chum of Pillatt's. Fawcett gave up a successful corset business he wasn't having any fun with to go into dyeing ("oh, a dyeing business," characters pun, more than once). He's painfully shy at first, responding to anyone's query with a monosyllabic mumble that hangs in the air like a fart. But he's a free spirit, and his passion for the great outdoors and travel and adventure, as opposed to nose-to-the-grindstone labor, start to sound awfully attractive to Kate, who's trying to reconcile herself to the trade-offs of a union with the unappetizing Pillatt.

A group of people on a stage

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Olivia Gilliatt, Tom Patterson, Joshua Echebiri, Sara Haider (Photo: Todd Cerveris Photography)

Well, we see where this is headed, don't we. It's not Baker's predictable plotting that's so compelling. It's the well-drawn workplace milieu, and the female-empowerment politicizing that feels more contemporary than it ought: Kate, nobody's fool, could easily rival any businessman in a less male-dominated society. But Baker is a sentimentalist, too, and we're happy and relieved when Kate realizes that "There are other things in life beside business." Miss Blagg, too, has a cynical attitude that resonates beyond 1917: "Dress anything up in a smart blouse and a coiffure, and men will make love to it."

Partnership would seem to have an American cousin: Philip Barry's Holiday, whose hero, Johnny Case, is very much a Yankee Lawrence Fawcett-hang business and officious purposefulness, let's celebrate fun and spontaneity. Baker's language is as unaffected as Barry's, not a commonality in this era, and if her characters aren't deep, they're consistent and interesting.

It's a production that exhibits the Mint's customary finesse, from Kindall Almond's costumes, which include several suits I'd like in my closet, to Daniel Baker & Co.'s unobtrusive sound design. Dialect coach Amy Stoller sees to it that these American actors get the accents largely right, though Pillatt keeps saying "extraordinary" when "extr'ordin'ry" would be far likelier. Gillette otherwise nails Pillatt's reserve and tight-lipped judgmentalism, and it's a pleasure to watch Haider's Kate come to exuberant life. Echebiri's Fawcett convincingly evolves from timid man-of-few-words to chatterbox liberated by love, and Seidman, the "tall slender pretty girl" Baker's script specifies, manages to be both touching and hilarious. Credit much of that to director Jackson Grace Gay, who has her actors conveying so much with a sideways glance here, an eyebrow arch there, a double take, a walk.

Baker has few surprises up her sleeve, and she makes rather too much of the shop's employees treating that Sally dummy as a real person; it becomes a running gag, a tired one. But the playwright had salient things to say about the inequality of the sexes and the freeing effects of love, and she said them extr'ordin'rily well. Partnership is no world-beater; it wasn't in 1917, either. But as a glimpse into a civilized, literate far-off time and place, it's a shining addition to the Mint's ever-expanding roster of Good Old Plays You Don't Know. There are probably hundreds. I hope they get to them all.

Playing at Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd St.
Through Nov. 12
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes