By Eric Uhlfelder
Jonathan Bank’s Mint Theater finally returned home to Theater Row after a long COVID-induced hiatus. And when I think of Mint productions, I’m reminded of the line Richard Harris spoke to Russell Crowe in Gladiator: “Let us talk together now, as men, very simply.”
The eloquent, understated qualities of Mint productions starts with its focus on lost plays that have quietly disappeared along with their authors.
British playwright Elizabeth Baker is far from a household name in London’s West End and even less so on or off Broadway. But in unearthing her first play, Bank has found a tale that’s remarkably timely given the great resignation that’s sweeping the land.
When Baker penned her story that takes place in suburban London during the first years of the 20th century, there was no pandemic, the First World War was still years away, labor unions hadn’t yet mustered any real power, and as had been the case for centuries, work meant survival.
However, the playwright reveals it takes but one pull of a thread to start revealing the discontent that lies beneath an ostensibly peaceful tapestry. That pull is the pending departure of an amicable lodger in a young couple’s home.
Charley (Jeremy Beck) and Lily Wilson (Laakan McHardy) appear as a loving contented couple. Their quiet, much appreciated lodger Freddy Tennant (Peterson Townsend) seems right at home. Then he announces he’s done with work, that he needs more and he’s heading off to Australia. Even before he realizes it, this awakens something in Charlie.
The conflict takes shape when Lily relays to her mother (Mrs. Massey played by Amelia White) that her husband is thinking of leaving her. Mrs. Massey’s response brings home the theme of the show, with which she and her own husband have long since come to terms: “Do you expect work to be pleasant? Does anybody ever like work? The idea is absurd . . . You don’t come into the world to have pleasure. We’ve got to do our duty, and the more cheerfully we can do it, the better for ourselves and everybody else.”
Don’t misunderstand. Charlie Wilson is no cad. He loves his wife. He still wants to be with her. But he needs a break. He goes to work every day. As a clerk, he’s bored stiff doing the same thing day in and day out. And Freddy Tennant’s decision to chuck it all induces a sympathetic response in Charlie.
Through various colorful characters, Baker gives voice to a full range of thoughts about life and work and responsibility, and to no surprise, few support Mr. Tennant’s decision. The most dismissive is the boisterously joyful Mr. Leslie who likes his life’s routine of making a living and merry making and mocks anyone who thinks otherwise, all while Charlie broods.
One who does understand this restlessness is Lily’s sister Maggie (Olivia Gilliatt). She marvels at Mr. Tennant’s spunk and when she learns that Charlie is also suffering from wanderlust, she’s thrilled that he may take off. This sequence of epiphanies makes her realize her pending marriage to a fitful man who’s passionately in love with her is not what she really wants.
The pleasure of this play is not that much gets resolved, but in Ms. Baker’s handling of how some respond to the age-old grief that contentment is hard to come by before one really has a chance to live . . . and maybe not even then. A talented cast and the pitch perfect design and direction of this production brings this all home.
We live in time where there’s a lot of noise, where just turning up the volume is often celebrated, perhaps covering our own discontent. But it’s just the opposite sentiment that sends me running back to the Mint Theater—thoughtful repose with words and ideas that matter and actors that can bring them compellingly to life.
Chains is at the Mint Theater, 410 West 42nd Street thru July 23.