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Theatre in Review: Becomes a Woman (City Center Stage II)

Peterson Townsend, Emma Pfitzer Price. Photo: Todd Cerveris

"You have to fight like hell all the time just to get the ordinary things that you're entitled to. If you don't want trouble, you don't want much else, either." Wise words from a shopgirl named Florry and, perhaps, the theme of this previously unseen knockout of a comic drama by Betty Smith. Best-known as the author of the blockbuster novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (later a great Elia Kazan film and a so-so Broadway musical), Smith was at heart a playwright even if she never achieved comparable success in the theatre. Becomes a Woman, copyrighted in 1931 and only now making its world premiere, is a strikingly feminist work; the playwright knew everything about the pitfalls facing working-class women, and here she subjects her heroine to most of them.

She is Francie Nolan -- interestingly, the same name as the protagonist of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, although the two have little in common -- who works as a song plugger in a Brooklyn dime store. A nice Irish-Catholic girl approaching the age of twenty, she is, unwittingly, something of a man magnet, thanks to her trim figure and pretty voice. One of the job's less-attractive aspect is the stag line that forms at her counter, each prospective swain offering the same tired old line. ("Are you doing anything tonight, baby?") But when the same words come from Leonard Kress, dapper son of the store's owner, they are music to her ears.

The first act is a leisurely workplace comedy, taking time to establish Francie's innocence and allowing her worldly wise colleagues, Tessie and Florry, to hold a symposium on man trouble. Florry, hands on hips, cracks wise while Tessie, who has known real tragedy, muses, "Maybe if [Francie] had one terrible scare; if something awful happened to her and she found out she didn't die....why it might be the making of her." Up front, the writing is a bit slack and the director, Britt Berke, and her cast haven't quite nailed all the comings and goings of various bit players. (I'm also not too sure about Francie's work dress, which is a tad racy for the period; she looks like a torch singer in a Broadway revue.) Overall, it's fun, but mildly so.

As it happens, the first act is just the windup; Smith has some killer curveballs at the ready. A few months later, Francine has an urgent need to get married -- need I say more? -- and is nervous about breaking the news to her parents. (In the Nolans' world, a young lady's indiscretion can call down shame on the entire family.) Adding to her anxiety, her father, a cop, is a petty tyrant and vulgarian, unhealthily obsessed with his daughter's purity: Seeing her covered from chin to toe in a robe, he furiously insists that she is undressed. The meeting between Leonard and her parents is a rolling disaster, ending with Francine disowned and abandoned. Suddenly, we understand that Smith means business; as she unsparingly makes clear, once Francine is branded a scarlet woman, there is no going back.

This act demonstrates Berke's remarkable knack for balancing comedy and melodrama, a skill that is equally important in Act III when, Francie, now a young mother, decides to settle with her tormentors. Meeting separately with Leonard and his rather more understanding father, she wields weapons that include a potential lawsuit, a writ of divorce, and a contract with a cabaret owner who, trading on her connection to Leonard, wants to bill her as "The Nickel-Dime Society Singer." Once again, nothing goes as planned but, by the end, Francie has several options for the future, along with her newly acquired independent spirit.

When a writer achieves success in another medium, one is often suspicious of their theatrical aspirations, but Smith clearly knew plenty about structure, characterization, and dialogue. Becomes a Woman builds steadily to a haymaker of a climax, dispensing with anything like a conventional happy ending. Things may work out for Francie yet, but the price has already been steep. Raised to be obedient, it's only when she fights back does it look like she might get somewhere.

Berke, who clearly has a strong eye for casting, fills Becomes a Woman with indelible performances, beginning with Emma Pfitzer Price, a recent Juilliard graduate making a head-turning debut as Francine. Fresh-faced, nervy, yet unsure of herself, she cuts a distinctive figure in the first act, fending off unwanted male attentions and disappearing behind the store's counter rather than face fresh embarrassments. Her shock she at being cast off by her loved ones is heart-rending, and she transitions seamlessly into a single mother well-schooled in self-reliance. It is an amazingly well-thought-through performance, instantly making Price a name to watch.

Jeb Brown is hair-raising as Pa Nolan, sitting around in his undershirt, soaking his aching feet, and bullying everyone in sight. An adamantine pillar of piety, he thinks nothing of calling his daughter a slut before putting her on the streets, brutally shattering a profound compact that leaves Francine terrified and begging for mercy. Providing plenty of the latter quality is Gina Daniels as Tessie, who has lived through a scenario not unlike Francie's and understands that life goes on. Peterson Townsend, stylish down the spats on his shoes, lays on the charm as Leonard before baring his essential viciousness in a set-to with Francine that he will soon regret.

Also: Duane Boutté offers an elegant turn as Leonard's father, who visits Francine, checkbook in hand, expecting a blackmailer and departing with an appreciation for her toughness. Antoinette LaVecchia has a batty, Edith Bunker quality as Francine's endlessly put-on mother. (Trying to make polite conversation with Leonard when he speaks of his childhood, she says, "I can't hardly believe that you were ever eight, Mr. Kress. Honestly you don't look it.") Jason O'Connell is right out of a pre-Code Hollywood comedy as Tessie's beau, an ambulance driver who uses his work vehicle for dates at Coney Island. ("We ought to make it in half an hour with all traffic pulling over when they hear the siren.") Pearl Rhein is the spirit of skepticism as Florry, the store's pianist, who knows how to handle men like Leonard. Phillip Taratula delivers a show-stopping double act as a creepy, predatory floor manager and as an agent who offers Francine $500 for appearing onstage undraped, with only a few discreetly placed roses to keep the police away. ("That's where 'art' comes in. The customers pay high for art.")

Vicki R. Davis set design features a a dime store interior that converts into the Nolans' kitchen/living room, a place so desolate Ralph and Alice Kramden might turn up their noses at it. (A colleague at the performance I attended noted that he hates to step out of the theatre at Mint intermissions because the changeovers are so much fun to watch.) My quibble with Francie's work outfit aside, the rest of Emilee McVey Lee's costumes are right out of the Warner Brothers costume department, circa 1930. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting, including those eccentric, but charming and colorful, Japanese lanterns, and M. Florian Staab's sound are typically solid.

With its feisty heroine and unsparing indictment of sexual hypocrisy, Becomes a Woman should forever put paid to the idea the Mint Theatre trades in beautifully burnished antiques. The long-lost works that artistic director Jonathan Bank finds tucked in away in obscure locations usually have something to say about the present moment. Chains, a 1909 drama presented last June, raised penetrating questions about capitalism and its discontents. The Rat Trap, a Noël Coward rarity produced in November, offered a startingly modern analysis of marital politics. There's no misty nostalgia here; rather, a vigorous dialogue between past and present. Meanwhile, the program says Smith wrote dozens more plays; I say, bring them on. --David Barbour

(1 March 2023)

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