by: Sherry Amatenstein
The Mint Theater Company’s mission is giving life to “lost” or “neglected” classic plays that deserve to be seen by a new generation of theater lovers. In other words, the Mint will never showcase Spiderman or Cuff Me: The Fifty Shades of Grey Musical Parody.
The latest work to be lovingly resurrected is by John Van Druten. The British playwright, who died in 1957, is best known for 1944’s I Remember Mama, 1950’s Bell, Book and Candle, and 1951’s I Am A Camera. The latter helped inspire the book for the Kander and Ebb 1966 musical behemoth Cabaret.
The Mint is showcasing an earlier Van Druten work, 1931’s London Wall. The entirety of the 2-½ hour play takes place in a 1930s-era London law office. The engaging, if overly long serio-comedy, focuses on the love lives of the firm’s “shorthand typists.”
The plot revolves around a naïve 19-year-old, Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler), who is dating Hec Hammond, a shy young shipping clerk (played with puppy-like adoration by Christopher Sears). The firm’s Don Juan (an atypically one-note Stephen Plunkett), Mr. Brewer, a junior lawyer who believes he is God’s gift to females, zeroes in on Pat. The lothario’s all-stops pursuit causes fellow secretary Miss Janus (a searing Julia Coffee), to become a zealous protector of the young woman’s virtue. It also causes Ms. Janus to question her own life –after 10 years still earning just 3 quid a week with no way out unless her indifferent fiancé finally pops the question. An eccentric elderly client Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy) keeps barging into the law office to change her will and to further drive home the point that an aging, unmarried woman’s lot was pitiable and limited.
London Wall has a spare but evocative workplace set in which the staff is perennially doing paperwork – filing, envelope stamping and licking, and even the sewing of documents. There are moments of pathos involving the fate of Miss Janus and her engagement, and of horror as attempted seduction morphs into attempted sexual assault.
Director Davis McCallum orchestrates crackling scenes bordering on slapstick as co-workers make synchronized entrances and exits – sharing scathing office gossip as soon as the subject is out of earshot. The denouement is a masterpiece of comic timing and nail-biting worthy of Noises Off as shy Hec, tutored by Ms. Janus, finally makes his move on Pat.
London Wall is not Van Druten’s best work. At times the play is heavy-handed, but more often touching and heartfelt. We come to care deeply for the characters (well, not for the Lothario!), particularly Miss Janus – whose life-altering decision at play’s end was shocking for its era, yet rings true for this brave warrior woman!
*Photos: Richard Termine
London Wall through April 14th, 2014
Mint Theater Company, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, www.minttheater.org