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Becomes a Woman

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - February 27, 2023

Gina Daniels and Emma Pfitzer Price
Photo by Todd Cerveris
The little-known or virtually unknown plays that have been expertly revived by the Mint Theater Company throughout its history have fallen into two broad categories: (1) obscure works by obscure writers; and (2) obscure works by famous writers. The company's current offering, Betty Smith's Becomes a Woman, is in the latter group. And here is one of those cases–rare for the Mint–in which, rather than wondering where this play has been all our lives, audience members are likely to feel they understand why they've never seen or even heard of it before.

Smith is remembered today for her 1943 novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," based on her own childhood experiences. A best-seller that soon came to be considered a classic, the book was adapted as a film that was released in 1945, and then as a musical that had an eight-month run on Broadway in 1951. Becomes a Woman, written around 1930, is also set in Brooklyn, but otherwise it bears little resemblance to the warm-hearted family drama found in the later work. On the contrary, the play is a hard-hitting tale of a young salesgirl who finds herself "in trouble," as the phrasing used to go. Oddly, and somewhat disconcertingly, two of the characters in the play have the same names as two in the novel: Francie Nolan, very much the central figure of both; and Johnny Nolan, the name of one of Francie's two brothers in the play (a minor role) but of Francie's alcoholic, ne'er do well father in the novel (a major character). One can only presume that Smith liked the names and decided to recycle them, thinking she was free to do so since Becomes a Woman had never been published or produced.

According to the Mint's program notes, the play explores "socially transgressive themes that likely limited its chances for production in the early 1930s." We first get some of this in the otherwise largely light-hearted Act I, during which we see Francie and her female co-workers at a dime store subjected to the shameless romantic and sexual advances of male customers during work hours. The bulk of the play shows us how terribly Francie is disrespected and/or mistreated by the men in her life, including her lover, that man's father, and her own father. Of course, Smith was not the first playwright to examine the extreme challenges faced by women in a patriarchal society; but she may have been one of the first female playwrights to do so, and that may indeed have been a big issue at the time.

In this reviewer's opinion, however, Becomes a Woman suffers from writing that often seems blunt and schematic to the point of melodrama, further marred by frequent hairpin turns of emotion among several of the characters, plus a certain redundancy of dialogue, inconsistency of tone, and a lack of concision. So perhaps some potential producers' decision to pass was based at least in part on reservations along those lines.

One of the strongest assets of the Mint production is the beautiful work of Emma Pfitzer Price as Francie, so earnest, skillful, and perfectly calibrated that her performance has the effect of helping to smooth over the flaws in the playwriting. An unexpected bonus is that Price has a lovely singing voice, here used to good advantage in the diegetic songs heard in Act I. (While the place where Francie works is described as a dime store, with all kinds of products available for purchase, these employees seem to spend most of their time plugging songs to spur sales of sheet music.) On that note–or those notes–I was delighted to hear recurring snippets of the "Left-All-Alone-Again Blues," a song originally written by Jerome Kern and Ann Caldwell for a 1920 musical called The Night Boat but later inserted into the 1975 Broadway revival of Kern's Very Good Eddie.

The other major standout among the cast is Gina Daniels as Tessie, one of Francie's co-workers and a boarder in her parents' home (until that situation ends abruptly). If Francie is treated like dirt by men, she can always count on the unwavering love and support of Tessie, who for example comes up with a smart temporary solution to Francie's plight when she is disowned by her family. Daniels offers a wonderfully warm, meticulously well observed portrayal of this salt-of-the-earth woman, and the play and the production benefit greatly whenever she's onstage. Excellent character work is also provided by Peterson Townsend as the fellow who does Francie wrong, Duane Boutté as his stern father, and Pearl Rhein as another of Francie's co-workers.

In common with many of the other seldom-produced or never-produced works that the Mint has unearthed, Becomes a Woman requires a large cast of gifted actors who can make a strong impression in smaller roles with a limited amount of stage time. Every last one of the remaining 10 members of this company displays such talent, but Jeb Brown as Francie's vulgar, loathsome pa and Antoinette LaVecchia as her long-suffering ma deserve special praise, and credit is due director Britt Berke for helping to guide those performances as well as the rest.

Per usual for this troupe, the production values here are first-rate; one might even risk the pun of stating that they are in Mint condition. Vicki R. Davis's lovely, well-appointed set for the first act is especially notable for the illuminated logo marquee of the dime store and several large, hanging globe lanterns that float above the action. The contrast with the set for Acts II and III, a modest Bushwick apartment, is striking. (The only note of incongruity is that those pretty lanterns remain for the apartment scenes, though largely unlit.) Costume designer Emilee McVey-Lee, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, and props person Chris Field are also part of the crack team that has helped to create a very firm sense of time and place for this show.

Not long before the ending of Becomes a Woman, Francie has a monologue in which she synopsizes all of the awful things that have happened to her over the course of the play, and as far as this viewer is concerned, that precis has an unintended, bitterly comic effect in that it underlines the fraught melodrama of what has come before. Shortly thereafter, Francie delivers a female empowerment statement that was greeted with cheers and applause by the audience at the performance under review: "Must whether men want me or not be the only reason for my happiness or unhappiness? No, that doesn't worry me. I'm building up a different kind of thinking these days where all those things will be priced according to just what they are worth ... to me."

Even while applauding that sentiment, one might wish that it had been expressed within the framework of a more well-crafted drama. Credit Betty Smith with a bold effort here, but although she once said, "I write plays because I'd rather do that than anything else in the world," some audiences may feel, on the evidence of both this piece and her classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that her talent was better expressed as a novelist.

Becomes a Woman
Through March 18, 2023
Mint Theater Company
New York City Center Stage II, 131 W 55th St, New York NY
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