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The Price of Thomas Scott

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - February 20, 2019

Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren and Emma Geer
Photo by Todd Cerveris

"It's Footloose, except John Lithgow wins." My theater companion and I almost simultaneously uttered this glib but not inaccurate short-sentence precis right after the final moments of a recent performance of The Price of Thomas Scott, by Elizabeth Baker, as revived by the invaluable Mint Theater Company.

To be sure, there are other differences between the two scripts/stories. For one thing, Footloose is set in a small town in Utah circa 1984, Baker's play in London during the early years of the 20th century. But the central conflict is similar: Whereas Lithgow's Reverend Moore character in the film has been a major force in banning dancing (and rock and roll music) throughout the town, businessman Thomas Scott in the play begins on a smaller scale by hesitating to sell his shop for conversion to a dance hall and contemplates signing a petition that would revoke the license of another such establishment — because he, too, is against dancing on moral grounds.

The prudery of Mr. Scott — played to perfection by Donald Corren in the Mint production — is not limited to a distaste for young people tripping the light fantastic. Visiting the Scotts, whose family unit consists of the man, his wife (Tracy Sallows) and his two children (Emma Geer and Nick LaMedica), plus a lodger (Andrew Fallaize), one of the young people's friends (Josh Goulding) asks, "What other things does the old chap go against — theaters, I suppose? Of course he doesn't go to theaters. No dancing, no theaters . . . . Does he let you smoke?" (Turns out Scott himself is a smoker — "his one pet weakness." So here we have the not unusual situation of someone crusading against a certain "evil" while himself indulging in a vice that's far worse. I mean, really — dancing and theatergoing as compared to smoking?)

All of that said, Scott does display a sort of integrity throughout the play. We're given to understand that it would be a very good deal for him to sell his shop to the company that would convert it to a dance hall, as he's being offered a pretty price for it. So he's putting his scruples ahead of financial gain, something that definitely can't be said for many people in positions of authority. Also, not wishing to seem a hypocrite, Scott refuses to sign the petition revoking that other dance hall's license until he has definitively decided not to sell his shop if it's to be converted for use for the same purpose.

Baker's play is a fascinating curio from another time, its revival here yet another feather in the Mint Theater Company's multi-feathered cap. There's some compelling discussion about what constitutes the difference, if any, between a prejudice and a conviction. And we come to learn that Scott's strong feelings about public dancing are not based solely in irrational, ultra-conservative repression; like Reverend Shaw in Footloose, he's concerned that indulgence in such activity often goes hand in hand with the over-consumption of alcoholic beverages by young people, which can lead to unfortunate consequences and even tragedy. (One has to wonder if the Footloose screenwriter, Dean Pitchford, was somehow familiar with this play.)

As directed by Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank, the marvelous actor Donald Corren has wisely decided to play Thomas Scott not as a sour, dyspeptic prig but rather as an almost jovial fellow who seems quite happy in life and is 100 percent sincere in his conviction (or prejudice) that dancing is bad. To interpret the role as grimly judgmental throughout the proceedings would have likely made for a hugely boring performance, but Corren is far too skillful and intelligent an actor to have fallen into that trap. His outward jollity makes for nuanced and complex interactions with the rest of the excellent actors in the company, especially Sallow as his spouse, and Geer and LaMedica as his progeny. It's obvious that Scott's family loves him and admires him, even if in some ways he exasperates them.

Vicky R. Davis's unit set design is up to the Mint's usual, exalted standard, but that brings us to the only significant flaw in this play: The narrative suffers from the fact that the action is entirely confined to the back parlour of Thomas Scott's shop, over a period of two days. More than any other unit-set play I can think of at the moment, this one feels like it could have benefited tremendously from the depiction of other locales — specifically, a scene or two in the other, presently functioning dance hall — and my guess is that logistical reasons prevented the playwright from calling for same. Apparently having recognized this issue, Baker does include a scene early on where the younger characters move all the parlour furniture out of the way to dance with abandon for a few joyous moments before being interrupted by the arrival of The Father. It's not much, but it gets the point across, however briefly.

The only other arguable missteps(s) in this production — literally — are those of the danced curtain call. Following the play's downbeat ending, in which repression and conservatism seem to triumph, the entire cast retakes the stage and dances to happy, peppy music. It's quite a jarring shift in mood — but maybe it's supposed to foreshadow that the discouragement or prohibition of public dancing in enlightened societies isn't going to continue for the long term.

The Price of Thomas Scott is the opener of a Mint series with the umbrella title "Meet Miss Baker," which will offer revivals of three plays by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) over a period of two years, all of them receiving their American premieres. Judging from the quality of this first entry, the initiative in well worthwhile. So, bravo — and brava!

The Price of Thomas Scott
Through March 23
Mint Theater Company at the Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge