The Mint Theater specializes in dredging up long-forgotten plays, most of them classically structured and written between the late 1800s and the 1940s. Its latest find is so perfectly on brand that it could have been retrofitted by a canny theater archaeologist. A three-act piece from 1931, “Becomes a Woman” had never been published or produced until now. It’s also by a female playwright — to its credit, a demographic the Mint has long championed. This time, however, she has a familiar name, at least to a certain generation: Betty Smith, the author of the beloved 1943 best seller “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
As it turns out, Smith wrote more plays than she did novels, though none were anywhere near as popular as the semi-autobiographical “Tree.” (Her sole Broadway credit is as the co-writer of the musical adaptation’s book, in 1951.)
Alas, Britt Berke’s timid production does not make a strong case for “Becomes a Woman.” The evening’s liveliest aspect might well be the erratic outer borough accents.
More on N.Y.C. Theater, Music and Dance This Spring
- Musical Revivals: Why do the worst characters in musicals get the best tunes? In upcoming revivals, world leaders both real and mythical get an image makeover they may not deserve, our critic writes.
- Rising Stars: These actors turned playwrights all excavate memories and meaning from their lives in creating these four shows, which arrive in New York in the coming months.
- Gustavo Dudamel: The New York Philharmonic’s new music director, will conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in May. It will be one of the hottest tickets in town.
- Feeling the Buzz: “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” is back on Broadway. Its stars? An eclectic cast of dancers who are anything but machines.
The themes here are similar to those one would find in the pre-Code Hollywood movies of the late 1920s and early 1930s — most centrally, that of a woman becoming pregnant out of wedlock and seeking emancipation from the controlling ways of her father and her boyfriend-turned-husband.
Our heroine is one Francie Nolan (Emma Pfitzer Price), who shares a name with the central figure of “Tree” but is not the same character. This Francie is 19 and works at a Brooklyn five-and-dime store, where she trills the songs of the day so customers can decide whether they want to buy the sheet music.
It’s easy to feel that little happens in Act 1, but that’s only because we have been trained to think of women talking to each other as being trivial. In fact, a lot of information and characterization is suggested in the affectionate banter between Francie and her older and more experienced colleagues, Tessie (a warm Gina Daniels) and Florry (Pearl Rhein), who try to impart the ways of the world on the younger woman. “A girl has to really like a man before she gets intimate with him, but a man has to get really intimate with a girl before he likes her,” Florry warns the innocent Francie. You can almost hear Barbara Stanwyck saying this line, and Rhein, who has a feel for the rhythm of the period’s language, gets close enough.
As to who runs the world, Smith was under no illusion: Francie is under the yoke of both her blowhard, tyrannical father, Pa Nolan (Jeb Brown), and her rich boyfriend, Leonard Kress Jr. (Peterson Townsend). She gets support from Tessie, but ultimately the only person she can rely on is herself.
It is not an easy arc to navigate, and Price’s Francie is not as vulnerable and naïve as the character should be at the start, not as steely as she needs to be by the end. Then again, her foils wilt: Neither Townsend nor Duane Boutté (as Leonard’s father) projects the confident authority of a man used to getting his way, while Brown draws Pa with thick Sharpie strokes.
Smith could navigate a thin line between sentimentality and clear-eyed realism but alas, this production feels less like complicated life than a diorama of it.
Becomes a Woman
Through March 18 at New York City Center, Manhattan; minttheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.