BWW Reviews: LONDON WALL Depicts 1930s Glass Ceiling
"The only way to run an office is for every member to make himself...or herself...as nearly as possible an automaton, or a machine," says a head solicitor in John Van Druten's 1931 commentary on workplace gender politics, London Wall.
"You can't bring personalities and personal relationships into business."
These may sound like the words of a crusty old-fashioned boss, but by the end of the play he has revealed himself to be quite the progressive thinker trying to navigate the tricky business of employee relations during a time when the mixing of genders in the workplace was still rather new.
If it's possible to consider a male playwright a leading feminist author, Van Druten would rank as a likely candidate. His more famous titles like I Am A Camera, Bell, Book and Candle and even I Remember Mama feature non-traditional women as strong central characters.
But famous titles are not what the Mint Theater Company is all about. Director Davis McCallum's spot-on production carries on the company's tradition of digging up forgotten plays that deserve to be seen and mounting them with a period style that is void of any contemporary commentary.
That last point is especially vital for a piece like this which centers on the female shorthand typists in law office who support themselves on meager wages with little chance for monetary advancement except to find men who will marry them.
You can't use a modern eye to observe the plight of the dry and efficient Miss Janus (Julia Coffey), who has committed herself to a long-term relationship with a man who has yet to offer a ring. She's well aware that her patience has caused her to enter her mid-thirties - undesirably old for a single woman - completely dependent on her current suitor as her last chance to be married.
While dealing with her own romantic complications, Janus offers advice to her young and inexperienced co-worker, Pat (Elise Kibler), who enjoys the company of Hec (Christopher Sears), the shy and smitten lad from the office next door who frequently invites her out.
Pat likes Hec, but wishes to be courted, so it disappoints her that they usually split expenses during their dates because he can't even afford to take her to the movies. So when the slick and handsome office lothario, Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), starts inviting her to join him for evenings at the theatre, an extravagance she could never afford, she happily accepts, naively thinking she can keep the predatory gent at arm's length.
Though the 80+ years since the play's premiere have reduced some of its situations to cliché, the excellent company, which also includes Jonathan Hogan as the sympathetic boss trying to deal with modern office life, Laurie Kennedy as a dotty and wealthy client who is shocked to discover how little Pat makes and Matthew Gumley as the young office hotshot, plays them with the utmost sincerity, and McCallum's crisp tempo keeps the three-acter feeling fresh.
Coffey is particularly affecting in a scene where she seriously imagines the horror of being too old for a man to desire her and a moment where Brewer makes it clear that he expects Pat to offer something in return for his generosity is played with chilling believability.
As is typical for The Mint, the design elements are marvelously detailed and authentic looking. Marion Williams' set design, Joshua Yocom's props and Martha Hally's costumes all contribute to the illusion that the audience is watching the play as West Enders might have in 1931.