Monday, July 11, 2022

Chains: A Resurrection from the Mint Theater

Laakan McHardy and Jeremy Beck in Chains. (Photo: Todd Cerveris)

The Mint Theater Company, an off-Broadway house in the business of reviving obscure European and American plays, has been on my radar for several years, but I had never seen one until they began to stream shows from their archive while the New York theatre was shut down by the pandemic. The plays themselves were interesting, but what struck me was the high quality of the productions. To be honest, I felt foolish for not having checked out Mint much earlier. (They’ve been around since 1995.)

Their current offering – their second since the reopening of live theatre and their first back in their home space on Theater Row – is Chains, a 1909 realist play from England by Elizabeth Baker. Baker had been inspired to try her hand at playwriting by the work Harley Granville-Barker was presenting at the Court Theater during his three seasons as artistic director. Chains was her first effort, but it’s a sophisticated piece of dramatic writing: skillfully structured, compelling in subject matter and character, illuminated by indisputable authorial intelligence. The social setting is the lower middle class residing in the London suburbs in the years before the First World War. The chains of the title are those imposed by duty, pragmatism and convention. The protagonist, Charley Wilson (played by Jeremy Beck), is a clerk suffocated by the dullness of his job and the dim prospects of improving his lot. He and his wife Lily (Laakan McHardy) live in genteel poverty, taking in boarders to alleviate some of the financial strain. They’re counting on his getting a raise, but instead his company, on the unconvincing excuse that they’ve had a bad year, reduces his pay. When their current boarder, Fred Tennant (Peterson Townsend), decides to walk away from his job and try his luck farming in Australia, his courage and optimism affect both Charley and his sister-in-law Maggie Massey (Olivia Gilliatt), who has become engaged to a man she doesn’t love in order to escape the shop where she’s employed. Everyone else who hears the news of Fred’s decision holds onto the conservative notion that a sure thing, however suffocating to the spirit, is better than a risk; they’re inured to the idea that work isn’t supposed to be pleasant. Only Charley and Maggie identify with his bid for freedom.

You can see the influence on Baker of the modern realist masters, all still occupying the cutting edge of drama: Ibsen, Shaw – the featured playwright during Granville-Barker’s tenure at the Court – and possibly Chekhov. (I’m not sure when Chekhov’s plays were first performed in English, but I was struck by a moment in the last act of Chains when Charley tacks Fred’s map of Australia on the wall of his sitting-room: it recalls Chekhov’s symbolic use of the map of Africa in Uncle Vanya, which had premiered in Moscow a decade earlier.)

The Mint has given Baker’s play a first-rate mounting: if the play is good, the production, directed by Jenn Thompson, is better. I admired Thompson’s revival of Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men for this company when I watched it online, and back in 2013 I saw her excellent handling of a little-known William Inge play called Natural Affection for the late, lamented TACT/The Actors Company Theatre with Kathryn Erbe and – in a staggering performance – John Pankow. Chains is a luminous piece of direction. Thompson seems to have it all: a splendid eye (the staging is quite beautiful), an easy command of tempo, a knack for effecting trick tonal shifts, and best of all, a gift for collaborating with actors. There are eleven of them on stage in Chains, and every one of them turns in fine work. Beck is the standout. He balances the character of Charley between desperation and melancholy; he gives him the complexity of a figure out of Chekhov as well as a poetic quality that hints at what this actor might be like wrestling with O’Neill. In the female lead, McHardy makes Lily’s terror at the thought of her husband’s leaving her deeply unsettling; he has promised her that staking out a claim for himself in the new world of Australia doesn’t mean abandoning her, but in her mind (and certainly in her society’s) she is undefined without him. McHardy gets at the neurotic quality of an Edwardian wife who suddenly finds herself in danger of losing the man she loves as well as her role.

The actors I haven’t mentioned are Avery Whitted as Lily and Maggie’s kid brother Percy; Anthony Cochrane and Elisabeth S. Rodgers as their parents; Andrea Morales as the object of Percy’s adoration; Christopher Gerson as a clerk who has just lost his employment; Brian Owen as the Wilsons’ next-door neighbor; and Ned Noyes as Maggie’s intended – who has just hired Percy in an office job that will add him to the list of young men trapped by soul-destroying labor. (Morales and Rodgers are understudies who stepped in at the matinee I attended.) Cochrane, Rodgers and Owen add some gratifying comic notes to the proceedings – a touch of Jane Austen in the portrayal of the parents, a touch of Dickens in Owen’s exuberant sketch of clownish, affable Morton Leslie. Thompson has given all of these performers the space to sculpt a corner of the play around themselves without violating the ensemble ethic of the show.

Charley comes close to breaking out and following Fred to Australia, but his legs are cut off when, in the final moments of the play, Lily reveals to him that she’s pregnant. It’s hard to imagine how Beck and McHardy could play this scene more movingly. He sinks to his knees, his lips pressed against her hand: it’s an expression of devotion and of defeat. She turns a level gaze on him and we see that – though he hadn’t told her he’d made the definite decision to leave – she knew he was going, and knew that her news, delivered at just this moment, would keep him there forever.

The lovely costumes for Chains are by David Toser, and Paul Miller has lit it evocatively. John McDermott is responsible for the set, which conjures up the whole world of this time and place and is also one of the most ingenious pieces of design I’ve seen in recent years. (I had occasion to praise McDermott nearly a decade ago for his work on Natural Affection.) And it has its own touch of poetry: he’s worked a subtle motif of chains into the wallpaper.

Chains closes on July 23. If you’re in the New York area, please try to catch it. Almost everything I saw this season brought out my curmudgeonly side; it’s a relief to be able, at last, to applaud work of this caliber.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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