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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 23, 2022

Peterson Townsend and Jeremy Beck
Photo by Todd Cerveris
Which of these quotes best describes your degree of contentment with your lot in life? "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," or "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Depending on your response, your sympathies will likely veer in one of two directions in the Mint Theater Company's well-acted, well-directed (by Jenn Thompson) production of Elizabeth Baker's 1909 play Chains, opening tonight at Theatre Row.

Chains is a portrait of working class Londoners in Edwardian England, holding down jobs as clerks and shopgirls day-in and day-out, from "nine to six, with an hour for lunch and tea thrown in," as one of the characters, Charley Wilson (Jeremy Beck) describes it. Charley and his wife Lily (Laakan McHardy) are generally satisfied to go with the flow, with modest ambitions for improving the quality of their lives over time. To help with the bills, they have taken in a tenant, conveniently named Freddie Tennant (Peterson Townsend). Unintentionally, Freddie sets off a chain reaction of bottled-up discontent when he lets his landlords know that he plans to quit his secure job, jump the mother country, and head out to seek his fortune in Australia.

Almost everyone in the Wilsons' circle of friends and family is gobsmacked and dismissive when they hear about what they consider to be a foolhardy notion. Charley and Lily's ebullient neighbor Morton Leslie (Brian Owen) speaks for the majority when he says, "I suppose he'll be out of work over there, and we shall be hearing about unemployment in the Colonies."

One exception is Charley, who looks down the road and sees nothing in his future beyond a life of quiet desperation, especially when he learns his salary as a clerk is about to be reduced. The lure of take-this-job-and-shove-it adventure grabs Charley by the throat, and he decides he will join Freddie. Not surprisingly, Lily is less than delighted. The same is true for her family, whose home is the setting for part of the play (scenic designer John McDermott pulls off a clever set change before our eyes). The only one who understands Charley's angst is Lily's sister Maggie (Olivia Gilliatt), who is supposed to be marrying nice guy Walter (Ned Noyes) but who is getting cold feet as she considers her own future.

Will Charley leave? Or rather, should he? That is the overriding question of the play. The playwright and the fine cast of 11 do a first-rate job of laying out the arguments on both sides without any of it coming off as a debate or even out of character. In the case of Chains, an unexpected and ambiguously presented change in circumstances puts the thumb on the scale in one direction for Charley. But for anyone who feels the urge to chuck it all, this production may well stir up more than its well-earned admiration. Older plays like this are rarely given a fresh look the way that the Mint Theater Company has made it its mission to do, and this one, despite its period setting, speaks directly to our time and the changing relationship between profit-driven businesses and their low-paid workers.

Through July 23, 2022
Mint Theater Company
Theatre Row, Theatre 5, 410 West 42nd Street Between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: