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


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