Thursday, April 10, 2014

Double Bill: A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity and Clean at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Emma Dennis Edwards, Chloe Massey, and Jade Anouka in CLEAN.  Photo by Jeremy Abrahams.
Zainab (Emma Dennis-Edwards), of mixed British-Egyptian descent, is a young, street-savvy, London criminal, specializing in identity theft.  Chloe (Jade Anouka), a slightly older, more refined, but equally dishonest Brit, is a highly successful emeralds smuggler.  And Katya (Chloe Massey), a Russian émigré, not quite old enough to be ex-KGB agent (but then again: Who really knows?), is the third female criminal, her forte being market manipulation, with occasional forays into diamond smuggling.

What the three women have in common is that they are all, as Zainab expresses it, “clean crime ladies…meaning no death no blood no mess kinda ting but still illegal as sin.”  And they are all exceptionally competent at what they do, prompting Caitlin, the co-owner of the club at which the three hang out, to recruit them to work as a team in the biggest caper of their lives.  It will be up to them to steal an incredibly well-guarded microchip from the notorious Kristof Clementine who, at one time or another, not only hurt Caitlin, but brought harm to Chloe and Katya as well.

If all of this sounds more like a video game than a stage play, well, that’s because in a way it really is.  When Sabrina Mahfouz wrote Clean, it was with the specific intent to “write a tale of three females who could easily be the basis of crime-based computer games”  (ostensibly as a way to redress the imbalance between the number of male anti-heroes and the number of female anti-heroes in video games).  In that, she clearly has succeeded: she has penned a rhythmical, rhyming, rap song of a play embodying the essence of a video game and she is fortunate that Dennis-Edwards, Anouka, and Massey are all exceptionally talented and play their roles with great panache.

But to what avail?  When all is said and done, it still all amounts to little more than a video game, necessarily derivative and corny.  Even granted that it’s largely tongue-in-cheek, that Mahfouz is a clever wordsmith, and that the dynamic trio are just that – a dynamic trio – we really have seen it all before and just because the play’s three protagonists are women rather than men doesn’t make it really different or compelling.

L-R: Gavin Jon Wright and Joanna Tope in A RESPECTABLE WIDOW TAKES TO VULGARITY.  Photo by Jeremy Abrahams.
Clean is just one half of the Double Bill currently being presented by The Traverse Theatre Company of Edinburgh at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan (the other half is A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity by Douglas Maxwell).  Both short plays are enjoying their US premieres and are directed by Orla O’Loughlin in 59E59 Theater’s Scotland Week (the first week in its highly regarded annual Brits Off Broadway program.  And the second of the two, A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, is a real winner.

In A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, Annabelle Love (Joanna Tope), mourning the loss of her husband, encounters Jim Dick (Gavin Jon Wright), one of her late husband’s employees.  In this terrific two-hander, the well-bred Annabelle learns more from Jim about language – its uses and abuses – than either Wittgenstein or Chomsky might ever have dreamt of in their philosophies.  Words, even the most vulgar of words, can mean very different things to different people and in different contexts.  They may have the most innocent, even endearing, connotations in some situations while other seemingly much more innocuous remarks may elicit far more negative reactions.  (Just think of the difference in reaction to the use of the N-word when the slur is hurled at an African-American employee by his white boss and when it is used by a black teenager innocently bantering with his black teenage friend.)

Along the way, both Annabelle and Jim learn much more about many other aspects of life as well – what it means to grieve, for instance, or how differently those in different socio-economic classes may see the world.

Joanna Tope is marvelous as Annabelle as she evolves from being the type of well-bred matron about whom one initially have said “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” to one who could hold her own among a group of sailors.  Gavin Jon Wright is equally delightful as Jim, whose unusual relationship with Annabelle ultimately enables him to see the world as he never has before.  They play off one another wonderfully and it makes for an exceptionally enjoyable theatrical experience.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Breathing Time by Beau Willimon

L-R: Lee Dolson and Craig Wesley Divino in BREATHING TIME.  Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.
Fault Line Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of Breathing Time by Beau Willimon at the Iati Theater on East 4th Street in downtown Manhattan.  This is an exceptional play, insightful and thought provoking, deeply nuanced, and multi-layered, with sharply-written dialogue reminiscent of David Mamet.  Try not to miss it.

Mike (Lee Dolson) and Jack (Craig Wesley Divino) might seem to be something of an odd couple – at least superficially.  Mike is married, the father of an eight year old boy, and a buttoned-up, by the numbers analyst, specializing in derivatives at an investment bank.  Jack, by contrast, is a single, fast talking, hard drinking, former trader, recently re-assigned to the marketing department of the same bank.  Somewhat surprisingly, they are called upon to share an office and it is there that we begin to discover just how misleading first impressions can be, how little we really understand each other (and often even ourselves), and how presumptuous it can be to jump to conclusions and interfere in others’ lives, even with the best of intentions, based upon one’s own values and attitudes, without knowing all the facts.  In short: “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

As it turns out, Mike and Jack might have more in common than first meets the eye.  For one thing, they both were once Boy Scouts.  Not surprisingly, Mike made it all the way to Eagle Scout, while Jack quit after becoming a Life Scout.  Did that presage Jack’s lack of stick-to-it-iveness?  But what, then, is one to make of Jack’s having persisted for years in seeking out the family of a military officer whose West Point ring had come into his father’s possession upon the officer’s death in Vietnam?  And isn’t it odd that tight-assed, quantitative Mike, the former Eagle Scout, can’t recall the Boy Scouts’ rules or oath while erratic Jack, the Boy Scout dropout, can recite them all verbatim?  Nothing, apparently, is quite what it seems.

Indeed, why has Jack really been sent to share Mike’s office?  Is it realistic to think that an unsuccessful trader would be reassigned to the bank’s marketing department and, even if it is, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have relocated him within the marketing department itself?  Is it possible that he is just being parked temporarily in Mike’s office as an interim step before his being forced out of the bank entirely?  Or is it Jack whose career is going downhill?  It is he, after all, who occupied a private office to begin with and who now is being required to share it with a stranger.  Neither Jack nor Mike express any compunctions about what is going on but can we really believe what they have to say?

When we first meet Jack, he is preparing to make a major presentation to a group of the bank’s senior officers, recommending that they offer clients a new derivative product based on the Nielsen ratings.  It is a bold and creative idea and one that could prove to be the most important of his career.  Or rather, he is not prepared but only scheduled to make such a presentation, since his proposal really hasn’t been fully fleshed out (he’s hoping that Mike will help him out on that); he’s still hung over from partying the night before; and even the documents he plans to distribute in support of his proposal haven’t yet been copied and collated.

Breathing Time is presented as a one act play with no intermission and it is in the first scene of that single act – set in Mike and Jack’s office which has been brilliantly designed by Tristan Jeffers - that all of what I have thus far been discussing transpires.  The theatre itself is a modified theatre-in-the-round with parallel rows of seats facing one another on opposite sides of the stage, affording everyone in the audience a view of the entire stage with perfect sight lines.  Mike’s and Jack’s desks have been positioned catty-corner in the corners of the stage as if to emphasize that the two are polar opposites.  Or perhaps it is to suggest that they are both variations on the same theme.  Or that they are two sides of the same coin.  Or maybe all of the above.

L-R:: Molly Thomas, Shannon Marie Sullivan, and John Racioppo in BREATHING TIME.  Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.  
The second scene takes place in a completely different setting.  Jack’s sister, Denise (Shannon Marie Sullivan) and Mike’s wife, Julie (Molly Thomas) are meeting for the first time over dinner.  Julie is a typical suburban homemaker, as conventional and mainstream as her husband.  Denise is a single mom, providing for her young daughter by performing at a “gentlemen’s club,” while harboring dreams of being a professional dancer.  Stereotypical images, to be sure – except that just as there were facets to Mike and Jack of which we were at first unaware, so too is there more to Denise and Julie than first meets the eye.  We would never have expected, for instance, that it was Denise who visited MOMA whenever she came to New York and that it was she who knew the precise location of every painting in the museum.  And why was Julie so strict with her eight year old son, grounding him for six months simply because she discovered him viewing internet porn?

It was Denise who initiated the dinner meeting, hoping to share with Julie a photograph she had received from Jack that she thought would very much interest her.  And yet, much to her surprise, Julie not only wasn’t interested in the photograph but actually resented Denise’s showing it to her in the first place!  (Her reaction was similar to that of the family to whom Jack attempted to return the West Point ring; they didn’t want any part of the ring and he found himself being rebuffed for what he had considered to be a gratuitously generous gesture on his part.)  From there, the relationship between Denise and Julie only got worse, with Julie attempting to encourage Denise in her dreams, Denise taking umbrage at Julia’s presumptuousness, and neither approving of the other’s child raising methods.

All four of the principal actors - Lee Dolson, Craig Wesley Divino, Shannon Marie Sullivan, and Molly Thomas - are excellent in their respective roles, expressing the multiple facets of their complex  personae with nuanced sensitivity.  They are ably supported Whitney Conkling as Karen, Jack’s tough assistant, and John Racioppo as the waiter serving Denise and Julie.  In sum, a first rate production of a not to be missed play.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fifty Shades! The Musical at the Elektra Theatre

L-R: Kaitlyn Frotton, Amber Petty, Chloe Williamson, and Ashley Ward in FIFTY SHADES! THE MUSICAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Following successful runs in Edinburgh, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, 50 Shades! The Musical, an hilariously funny, over-the-top, parody of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, has returned to the Elektra Theatre on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan.  Billed as “The Original Parody of the Greatest Novel Ever Written,” 50 Shades! The Musical may not be good, clean fun – but it certainly is great fun of a more earthy sort.  By all means, don’t take the kids (ask your more prudish friends if they wouldn’t mind baby-sitting them for you) but you go out and pleasure yourself by attending a performance of this wildly entertaining musical sex-travaganza.

Anastasia Steele (Amber Petty), is a young, wholesome virgin, anxious to please, but with a deep feeling of emptiness in her life, which she cleverly expresses in her terrific double entendre rendition of “There’s a Hole Inside of Me.”  And, in a way, that says it all.  When she meets Christian Grey (Chris Grace), a billionaire businessman and kinky sexual predator who never met an orifice he didn’t like, how could she help but fall in love with him?  Cast against type, Christian has the body type of a scaled down sumo wrestler and the rubbery face of a clown – not every woman’s fantasy come true, to be sure, but he is just what Anastasia’s has been yearning for – and that makes for some rollickingly entertaining scenes.

The play really belongs to Amber Petty and Chris Grace.  She is not only a delightfully attractive and talented actress but she can belt out a song with the best of them.  He is a consummate physical comedian, whose agility, body language and facial expressions continually surprise.  Together, they are a matchless duo, but they are also fortunate in being surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast.  I was particularly taken with Tim Murray in the role of Jose, the Mexican youth smitten by Anastasia, and by Kaitlyn Frotton, Chloe Williamson and Ashley Ward, as three sexually frustrated book club members who get the whole show underway by selecting Fifty Shades of Grey as their next book to read in the first place.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Musicals Tonight! Stages Revival of For Goodness Sake at The Lion Theatre

For Goodness Sake, written by Fred Jackson with lyrics by Arthur Jackson, music by William Daly and Paul Lannin, and with merely “additional” music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, was first produced on Broadway in 1922.  Starring Fred and Adele Astaire, it didn’t make much of a splash, closing after only 122 performances.  But then, re-staged in London a year later as Stop Flirting, with additional Gershwin songs and a revised story line (but still featuring Fred and Adele Astaire), it proved to be considerably more successful, running there for more than a year.

And it hasn’t been seen here since.  Until now.

Musicals Tonight!, which takes as its mission the resurrection of long-forgotten musicals, is currently staging a revival this period piece as For Goodness Sake by George and Ira Gershwin, at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  This production marks Musicals Tonight!’s 79th revival – others of which have included Girl Crazy, Lady Be Good, Meet Me in St. Louis, Irma la Douce, Paint Your Wagon, and Milk and Honey.  To be sure, many of those 79 musicals were well worth reviving but some were not and, sad to say, For Goodness Sake falls into that latter category.

For Goodness Sake has a hackneyed and dated story line, providing no real surprises.  The dialogue is flat and the first act especially tedious.  And of all its musical numbers, there is only one, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, that really is up to the Gershwins’ standard.  Indeed, the rest of the score is so disappointing that that one tune is performed four times, as if to distract from everything else.

This production of For Goodness Sake is set at the Bourne Lodge where Vivianne (Amber Guest) who, despite being deeply in love with and engaged to marry Perry (Brandon Andrus), persists in extensive and innocent flirtations with an array of other men, much to the consternation of her fiance.  Perry enlists the aid of his friend Geoff (Nathan L. Freeman) to help him determine whether Vivianne truly loves him and to dissuade her from her flirtations but Geoff demands a quid pro quo: he will assist Perry if Perry will sanction his marriage to Marjory (Natalie Beck), Perry’s ward and Vivianne’s former classmate.  The two men agree and concoct a plot whereby Perry fakes his death in a phony airplane crash on a trans-Atlantic flight piloted by his friend Bobby (Matt Demont); their hope is that, when Vivianne hears of Perry’s death and then learns that he is alive after all, she will return to her senses, realize how much she loves him, and abandon her flirtations.

Of course, events fail to develop quite as planned.  Vivianne learns of the ruse and turns the tables on Perry.  But since Perry and Vivianne are truly in love, as are Marjory and Geoff, everything works out predictably well in the end and all the players can take turns singing I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise and other more forgettable tunes.  Finally, even the musical’s third romantic coupling – that between Teddy (Sean Bell) and Suzanne (Sarah Rolleston) – is brought to successful fruition.  And the fortune hunter, Count Spinagio (Jason Simon), finally gets his come-uppance.

The musical itself isn’t much but that is not to say that the Musicals Tonight! company doesn’t do a wonderful job with the limited material at its disposal for, indeed, they do.  The entire cast deserves credit for their performances but, in particular, I would single out Amber Guest, who has a terrific voice and uses it to full advantage; Sean Bell, who has a tough act to follow as Teddy (since that’s the role that was originally played by the iconic Fred Astaire), but who pulls it off with exceptional charm and grace; and Jason Simon, who provides delightful Falstaffian comic relief as Count Spinagio. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Liliom Starring Gerrard Lobo at Beautiful Soup Theater

Gerrard Lobo and Morgan DeTogne in LILIOM.  Photo by Samantha Mercado-Tudda.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was originally inspired by the play Liliom, written by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar in 1909.  Liliom was not well received when it was first staged in Hungary but it was a rousing success when it subsequently opened on Broadway in 1921 in a translation by Benjamin Glazer and again when it was revived on Broadway in 1932.  It was staged in New York again in 1940 but has not been seen here since – not until now, that is: it is currently being revived in an excellent off-off-Broadway production by Beautiful Soup Theater at Celebration of Whimsy (the former home of The Living Theatre) on Clinton Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 

Liliom is set in Budapest, Hungary and in a sort of transitional area outside of Heaven.  In this production, Gerrard Lobo performs powerfully in the title role as a tough, arrogant carousel barker who, despite falling in love with and impregnating Julie (Morgan DeTogne), generally mistreats her, once even to the extent of slapping her.  Nonetheless, concern for his unborn child prompts Liliom to engage in an ill-conceived robbery, resulting in his untimely demise.  At that point, Liliom finds himself waiting outside the Pearly Gates to learn of his eternal fate: after spending 16 years in a fiery Purgatory, he is given the opportunity to return to Earth for a day to make amends for the life he lived, before final judgment is passed upon him.

(Carousel Americanizes the play in many ways.  The first half takes place in Maine rather than Budapest.  Liliom becomes Billy Bigelow.  And the play’s climax is made more hopeful.)

But since Carousel is widely considered to have been one of the greatest musicals of all time (indeed, in 1999, Time Magazine named it the Best Musical of the 20th century), and since it has been frequently revived, while Liliom seems to have been all but forgotten, one might reasonably ask: Why revive Liliom now?

In a Program Note to this revival, Steven Carl McCasland, the Artistic Director and founder of Beautiful Soup Theater and the Adaptor and Director of this production, addresses that question.  While he readily concedes that:

“The music [in Carousel] was so stirring that, despite several revivals over the years, Molnar’s play is often forgotten and companies around the world choose instead to mount the beloved musical”

he contends that:

“…the play evokes a cautionary tale.  The War on Women continues to rage.  But much like when Julie challenges Liliom to raise his fists again, the fight for equality passionately continues.”

And he concludes that

“[Liliom is] just as moving a journey, even without the sweeping sounds of Carousel.”

I’m sorry but I must respectfully, and vehemently, disagree.  Liliom is nowhere near as moving a journey without the sweeping sounds of Carousel.  And it is really quite a stretch to attempt to interpret this play as a polemic against wife abuse: Molnar emphasizes the point that Liliom has struck his wife only once and that others are mistaken in believing that he is a habitual wife-beater.  And at the play’s conclusion, both Julie and her daughter Louise (Kelly Reader) express the sentiment that sometimes a hard slap does not even hurt.

Rather, the play explores a whole variety of human behaviors – both admirable and reprehensible - of which wife abuse is only one.  It touches on a woman’s confessing to her dead lover what she had been unable to express to him when he was alive; on the joy (and fear) a man experiences on learning that he is to be a father; on individuals’ petty concerns for their own portraits or pay or pensions in the face of others’ real tragedies. 

None of what I have just written is intended to trivialize all of the unforgivable, misogynistic, sociopathic and brutal aspects of wife abuse.  Such behavior is to be condemned, criminalized and punished and I, for one, applaud Beautiful Soup Theater for bringing this matter to the attention of its audience, soliciting their support in combating it, and contributing the proceeds from its own production of Liliom to Safe Horizon, the largest organization helping victims of crime and abuse in the United States today.  But support for a worthwhile cause still doesn’t justify misinterpreting what a theatrical work is all about or why it may be worth producing or seeing.

Nor should what I have written be taken to mean that I didn’t enjoy this production of Liliom, nor that I wouldn’t recommend to you that you see it.  On the contrary: I think that this is a very professional production of a seldom seen play and theatre aficionados – especially those with a particular interest in the precursors of selected works (in this case, Carousel) – are very likely to enjoy it.

But it doesn’t really strike a blow for women’s rights.   And it really isn’t even in the same league as Carousel

Friday, February 28, 2014

Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night in Revival at Theatre Row

L-R: Niclole Lowrance and Jonathan Hadary in MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
In its mission statement, Keen Company asserts that it is “not afraid of emotional candor, vulnerability or optimism” and expresses its “desire to invigorate the theater with productions that connect us through humor, heart and hope.”  In its current revival of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, it has more than fulfilled that mission.  This play is quintessential Paddy Chayefsky – a heart-warming uplifting tale of two lonely and insecure characters who ultimately find the love and companionship they seek in one another’s arms – and this sensitively performed revival is everything one might have hoped for.

Chayefsky’s best-known work, Marty, is the story of a fat, lonely butcher who eventually finds love and happiness with Clara, a shy, homely school-teacher.  (That play first appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse in 1953 and was adapted for the movies in 1955, earning Chayefsky the first of his three Academy Awards.)  Set in New York City in the mid 1950s, Middle of the Night is a variation on that theme: the male lead here is not a butcher but a garment center manufacturer and the female lead is not a librarian but the manufacturer’s employee - but those are mere surface differences.  The lonelinesss, sadness, vulnerability and despair these characters experience are very much the same.   

Originally produced on television a year after Marty, Middle of the Night featured E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint in the leading roles, before moving to Broadway in 1956 in a production starring Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands.  In 1959, the play was adapted for the screen, starring Frederic March and Kim Novak.  In this current revival, the play stars Jonathan Hadary as Jerry Kingsley, the lonely, widowed garment center manufacturer who is all too aware of his own mortality at age 53 (an age at which his friends already are retiring, dying or, at the very least, experiencing their own mid-life crises) and Nicole Lowrance as Betty, his very pretty and equally lonely, relatively immature, 24 year old employee (who is young enough to be his own daughter).  Both Hadary and Lowrance are terrific, bringing a level of sensitivity and poignancy to their respective roles that make this production well worth seeing.

Since his wife’s death, Jerry has been lonely and apathetic, searching unsuccessfully for another life partner (he did propose to one woman, Grace, a buyer at Lord & Taylor’s, but was rejected).   His family has attempted to provide him with a support system: his older sister, Evelyn (Denise Lute), lives with him and cares for him, unsuccessfully attempting to match him up with one of her widowed canasta playing friends (played by Amelia Campbell).  His daughter, Lillian (Melissa Miller) visits him with his grandchild and urges him to visit her, but that doesn’t do much good either.

Meanwhile, Betty is unhappily married to George (Todd Bartels), a decent enough chap who certainly does not mistreat her and is attentive to her sexual needs, if not her emotional ones, leaving her feeling lonely and unfulfilled.  Her mother (Amelia Campbell, who also plays the role of Evelyn’s widowed friend) isn’t really sensitive to her needs either and neither is her friend Marilyn (also played by Melissa Miller).  To be sure, they all mean well but the best of intentions is seldom good enough.

And so Jerry and Betty find each other.  But, as Shakespeare put it, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”  Jerry and Betty encounter obstacles both of their own making and those placed in their way by others.  They are both fully aware of the consequences that may result from the disparity in their ages and it has given them both pause.  If it had not, Betty’s mother and Jerry’s sister and daughter, are all there to remind them:  Betty’s mother never paid that much attention to Betty while she was growing up (which may, at least in part, account for her current insecurities) but now that Betty is grown up, her mother has no doubt that she knows what is best for her.  And it certainly is not to divorce a decent and sexually satisfying husband (no matter what his other shortcomings) in order to marry a man old enough to be her father – let alone a Jew.  (Remember: this all takes place in the 1950s, an age that was not merely pre-pill, but was even pre-pantyhose, an age of cinched waists and garter belts.  It was a time in which marriages were expected to be “age appropriate” and to last, a time in which divorce may not have been absolutely taboo but was certainly frowned upon much more than it is today, and a time in which “mixed marriages” between Christians and Jews were scarcely mainstream.)

Both Evelyn and Lillian couldn’t agree more with Betty’s mother.  Indeed, Evelyn’s hostility has been even further deepened by the realization that Jerry’s marriage to Betty would challenge her own role as mistress of Jerry’s house.  And for Lillian, Jerry’s marriage to Betty would threaten her role as “Daddy’s little girl.” Imagine her fear of being usurped by a girl even younger than herself.  And a shiksa to boot.

This Keen Company production of Middle of the Night is a pared down version of the original play in which eleven roles are played by just seven actors (each of four actors plays two roles apiece with the other three actors playing the remaining three roles).  For the most part, this works out well: Amelia Campbell delineates the roles of Betty’s mother and Evelyn’s widowed friend with clear differentiation and considerable humor; Denise Lute is very effective both in her role as Evelyn and as the next door neighbor; and Melissa Miller handles her roles as Lillian and Marilyn with consummate skill.  Requiring Todd Bartels to play both the role of Jerry’s son-in-law, Jack, and that of Betty’s husband, George, however, may have been a reach too far: to be sure, he is terrific as Jack and his explosive tirade at Lillian is one of the play’s high points.  But the demands made of him in that role may have taken too much out of him and, perhaps as a result, his performance as George is rather flat.

My only other negative comment on what I otherwise very much enjoyed as a fine theatrical experience related to the stage set.  All of the action in the play takes place in one of two locales – Jerry’s home which he shares with Evelyn or Betty’s home which she shares with her mother and her sister, Alice (Alyssa May Gold) – and far too little effort was made to distinguish one locale from the other.  But that is a minor criticism.  On the whole this really is a terrific production and I urge you to go see it. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

London Wall by John Van Druiten in US Premiere at Mint Theatre

L-R: Stephen Plunkett and Julia Coffey in LONDON WALL.  Photo by Richard Termine.
Mint Theater Company on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan has taken it as its mission to produce “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten.”  Thus it is that London Wall, written by John van Druten more than four score years ago, is at long last reaching an American audience.
Admittedly, John van Druten was not a great playwright (as were, say, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, or Arthur Miller), but he was one of the more commercially successful playwrights of the twentieth century.  His Broadway triumphs included Old Acquaintance; The Voice of the Turtle; I Remember Mama; Bell, Book and Candle; and I Am a CameraLondon Wall, however, which premiered in London in 1931, wasn’t even revived there until just last year, and it never made it to New York.  Not until now, that is, for which we have Mint Theater to thank.

It is not that this exploration of the lives and loves of four shorthand typists in a London solicitor’s office in the 1930s is a great play for it truly is not.  Even allowing for the fact that it was written nearly a century ago, its story lines are trivial and hackneyed and its characters stereotypical.  But just because it is not a great play does not mean that it is not very entertaining, for indeed it is.  Van Druten was very astute in his observation and depiction of what life was like when men and women were first being brought together to work in close proximity in business offices.  This romantic drama is the result and it really is great fun.

The play’s four shorthand typists are four classic types that are all too common on the stage, in literature, and, I daresay, in real life.  Miss Bufton (Katie Gibson) has been around the block: she knows the rules in the war between the sexes and we need lose no sleep over her.  Both Miss Hooper (Alex Trow) and Miss Janus (Julia Coffey) are a bit more worrisome: Miss Hooper has been patiently awaiting her married lover’s promised divorce from his wife to come through and Miss Janus is equally patiently awaiting her boyfriend s finally agreeing to tie the knot (after seven long years).  We can’t be too sanguine about their prospects.

As for Miss Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler), a 19 year old naïf and an orphan to boot, innocent in the ways of men – well, we probably ought be most concerned about her.  Of course, we’ve seen and heard it all before and matters develop much as we might have expected.  Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), the office Lothario who preys on innocent young women, does come on to Pat, and her relationship to her boyfriend Hec Hammond (Christopher Sears) is put at risk.  In motherly fashion, Miss Janus takes Pat and Hec under her wing and when things get really out of hand, there is the fatherly, compassionate, principled Mr. Walker (Jonathan Hogan), the firm’s senior partner, to set matters right again.

Meanwhile, Birkenshaw (Matthew Gumley), the firm’s young messenger, general gofer and switchboard operator, amuses himself by listening in on the calls that come through his switchboard and disclosing the contents of legal documents that he had no business reading in the first place.  Finally, popping up un-invited at the seemingly most inopportune moments, is Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy), one of the firm’s oldest clients, a very wealthy and somewhat batty spinster with a heart of gold and an obsessive need to write and re-write her will.   We just know that she’ll eventually have an important role to play in all this and, in fact, she does.

So there you have it.  It’s a story we’ve all heard many times before and there are no major surprises (well, yes, there are a couple of minor ones but nothing truly earth-shattering).  But as van Druten tells it, London Wall is a story you’re likely to enjoy hearing again.  And as the extremely talented Mint Theater ensemble performs it, this is a play very much worth your seeing