Friday, February 21, 2014

228. Review of LONDON WALL (February 20, 2014)


A recent Sunday piece in the New York Times by Jason Zinoman pointed out that John Van Druten himself wrote in 1953 of his 1931 play LONDON WALL that it was too culturally specific to life in a British law office to mean anything to a New York audience. Perhaps because of views like this it was never produced here and had to wait until the current staging at the Mint Theatre, devoted to uncovering lost theatre gems, before its author’s thesis could be tested. Judging from the audience’s reaction and the comments of people I overheard as we walked down the steps from the third floor, Van Druten, known for his romantic comedies, like BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE, couldn’t have been more wrong about how it would go over on this side of the pond. Not that it’s a long-lost treasure, by any means; its dramatic structure begins to creak noisily as it moves into its third act (yes, a three-act play, performed as such with two intermissions), but it’s unquestionably stage-worthy enough to merit production, and—despite a few rough edges—the Mint gives it a sufficiently polished production to make it worth a visit.

            Early this season, J.B. Priestley’s CORNELIUS, another forgotten English play from the 1930s set in an office, was produced at 59E59. That production was a replication of the work’s successful 2012 revival by London’s Finborough Theatre, with its original English cast intact. The Finborough also was responsible for rediscovering LONDON WALL earlier this year, but the Mint’s production, directed by Davis McCallum, is a fresh view, with an American cast donning British accents, if not always with complete success. Mr. McCallum’s staging, while never achieving as great a sense of period authenticity and ensemble unity as CORNELIUS, is nevertheless a satisfactory job of theatrical resuscitation, with sufficient charms of its own.
Photo: Richard Termine.

            Mr. Van Druten’s dramedy (there are two offstage deaths so calling it a comedy seems a bit off the mark) places us in the offices of Messers. Walker, Windermere & Co., solicitors, located in the London Wall section of London. Three of the five scenes are set in the firm’s general office, the two others in that of one of the senior partners, Mr. Walker (Jonathan Hogan). However, unlike the Finborough production, photos of which show different scenery for each office, the Mint’s basic set—possibly for budgetary reasons—remains the same and only the arrangement of desks and file cabinets—swiftly shifted by the cast in the middle of acts 2 and 3—changes. Designed by Marion Williams, the set very capably captures the feel of a 1931 British office, with its faded walls, wood trim, shelving, and office accoutrements (including an old-fashioned switchboard), but it takes a moment or two for the notion of the same space being used for two settings to sink in, since the substantial walls and doorways remain the same throughout. (From where I sat, by the way, on an aisle seat at audience right, I missed the entire stage right wall.) In the best of all possible worlds, two sets would have been better than one. Martha Hally’s Depression-era costumes and Nicole Pearce’s lighting, with multiple ceiling lamps hanging over the stage nicely complement the period look. 
From left: Elise Kibler, Alex Trow, Katie Gibson, Matthew Gumley. Photo: Richard Termine.

            There are four unmarried women working in the office, the principal ones as far as the play is concerned being Miss Janus (Julia Coffey), 35-years-old  and in a relationship with a man from the Dutch legation for seven years. She’s the bedrock among the secretarial staff, having been there a decade, and, though she will endure her own romantic trauma, offers mature, well-seasoned advice on matters romantic to the other leading woman, the pretty 19-year-old, Miss Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler), recently employed at the firm, and pursued by the tongue-tied Hec. (sic) Hammond (Christopher Sears). Hec. works for another firm in the same building and is constantly visiting Pat’s office on one trumped-up excuse or another. He, too, benefits from Miss Janus’s advice to the lovelorn. Complicating matters is the attractive, but sexually predatory, solicitor, Eric Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), who hits on everything in skirts and establishes a definite sexual rivalry with Hec. The other women, Miss Hooper (Alex Trow) and Miss Bufton (Katie Gibson), are also preoccupied with their boyfriends. It’s a wonder anything gets done since the staff seems to spend so much time talking about their marital futures.

Elise Kibler, Christopher Sears. Photo: Richard Termine.

            It becomes clear that the sword of Damocles hanging over these women’s heads is the prospect of eternal spinsterhood. Career opportunities for women being so limited, marriage is everyone’s goal, even if they don’t necessarily love the man they plan to marry. Issues of sexual relationships outside of marriage also intrude, albeit subtly. Representing the ultimate in spinster tragedy is a colorfully eccentric old lady, Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy), who haunts the offices so much with her requests to revise her will and the various lawsuits she files that Mr. Walker finds various excuses not to see her. Everyone calls her mad, but what we actually see is a talkative yet sincere old biddy who not only is perfectly harmless but is concerned with doing the right thing. After she has a brief conversation with Pat and learns how little money she’s making, she changes her will.

Stephen Plunkett, Laurie Kennedy. Photo: Richard Termine.

No spoilers here (you can guess already can’t you?), so suffice it to say that after two acts of office byplay during which we gradually learn who the characters are and what’s on their minds, act 3 explodes with a flurry of dramatic developments that, while more or less prepared for, offer a somewhat melodramatic, if emotionally fulfilling, resolution to the play’s various complications. LONDON WALL bears all the markings of the well-made play; it has a certain familiarity that makes it go down smoothly, but it’s hard not to smile at the young Van Druten’s grasping at theatrical contrivances to tie up all his loose ends.
Elise Kibler, Julia Coffey. Photo: Richard Termine.

Although gender equality is still being fought for in the corporate world, it’s improved enormously since LONDON WALL was written over 80 years ago. Still, enough of what the play presents remains true, including the problem of sexual harassment in the work space, to make its situations still recognizable. Most young men and women may no longer be quite as naïve as Hec. and Pat, but innocence and susceptibility will always remain human qualities, and, while we may smirk at what seems dated about these people, experience shows that such attitudes continue to exist beneath a layer of so-called modern sophistication.
Stephen Plunkett, Elise Kibler. Photo: Richard Termine.

The performances in LONDON WALL are generally smart and truthful. Stephen Plunkett’s Mr. Brewer is convincingly slick and narcissistic; Julia Coffey’s Miss Janus conveys a nice balance of maturity and kindness mixed with knowing cynicism; Elise Kibler’s Pat is appropriately innocent yet determined; and Laurie Kennedy’s Miss Willesden is effectively peculiar, if a bit clichéd. Christopher Sears as Hec. is less convincing, coming off as more goofy than shy; he’s attractive enough but one still wonders what a smart cookie like Pat would see in him. Then again, one wonders what she sees in Mr. Brewer, so perhaps this is more the playwright’s problem than the actor’s. Jonathan Hogan, who gets less stage time than most of the others, makes the most of his scenes as the benevolent but forthright head of the firm; his accent, though, is shaky. The scene in which he insists that the workplace is for work, not private matters, is one of those moments that brings the play directly into the modern world. But Mr. Walker also questions the wisdom of women having entered the work force, a telling remark that establishes the play’s position at a crucial historical moment.

Jonathan Hogan, Elise Kibler. Photo: Richard Termine.
Katie Gibson and Alex Trow as the other office workers give fine support, but the weak link is Matthew Gumley, the Cockney office boy, with his annoying voice, accent, and mannerisms. His role, by the way, was played in the original (and in the 1932 film version) by John Mills, who became one of England’s greatest actors.

Most of the original London Wall, built by the Romans, has been torn down. John Van Druten’s LONDON WALL surely won’t last as long as the place it’s named for. However, the fact that it can still stand on its own after eight decades of neglect is heartening, and we can thank both the Finborough Theatre and Mint Theatre for excavating it for our benefit. Soon a more famous Van Druten play, I REMEMBER MAMA, will be shown in New York, where it had success many years ago. And CABARET, soon to be revived as well, originated in Van Druten’s I AM A CAMERA. The Van Druten season is off to a good start; here’s hoping it continues.