Pass through a sidewalk bridge on West 43rd Street and up three flights to the Mint Theater Company and get comfortable with 1930s London—the era between the wars when women went to offices.
At Walker, Windermere & Co in London Wall, (the address from which John Van Druten takes his title) they do the tedious, low level work of the law—filing, typing, copying, binding—work the playwright judged “sordid and routine” calling on his own experience as a clerk in a solicitor’s office.
Van Druten is celebrated for his character driven plays, and London Wall certainly qualifies. The leads, Elise Kibler (Pat Milligan) and Julia Coffey (Miss Janus), form a protege/mentor dyad. Pat is the pretty naif in her first job. She has a boyfriend who’s tentative and a predatory boss. Miss Janus has been at it for ten years. She has an absent lover and a defining eye for workplace predation.
Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett) does his oily best to conquer Pat with dinner out and theater tickets. The villain of the piece, he is caught out in his egotism, convinced he is irresistible to women.
The other “girls” in the office have their moments as well. Van Druten uses them to underscore that women, even women independent enough to work, still find themselves largely defined by men.
Katie Gibson’s Miss Bufton is a bit of a tart enjoying cocktails at lunch and late nights. She’s lazy in the office and perhaps a bit dim. She is rewarded with attention and baubles.
Miss Hooper, like Miss Janus, is dating a married man. Unlike Janus, Hooper is not sleeping with her guy . . . not “giving the milk”. . . well, you know. This proves the winning strategy in that she gets the guy—while Miss Janus gets dumped. Even so, the playwright gives her a more interesting future.
London Wall was written in 1931. The fact that the power structure between men and women in office settings is NOT antique these 83 years later – is unsettling. Sexual politics aside, there are some wonderful performances from the supporting cast.
Christopher Sears, as the reluctant beau (Hec to Pat), brings enormous energy to his character, finally exploding with his need for her. You watch him the whole time he’s on stage.
Laurie Kennedy, as the eccentric Miss Willesden, is delightful playing her two notes—crazy and Greek Chorus—lightly. Jonathan Hogan, as Mr. Walker, the boss, is all business, and yet you warm to him and find him disarmingly funny. Matthew Gumley gives Birkenshaw—the annoying know-it-all in every office—life. You don’t quite like him, but you recognize him.
The set evokes the primitive—or charming (take your pick)—ways of keeping records before servers and clouds. At one point Pat is seen sewing documents together. The Mint, as it sometimes does, salts the lobby with set pieces, this time with old oak office furniture, old typewriters, even a marvelous, if lumpy, Edwardian upholstered tub chair. (Marion Williams did the set; Joshua Yocom, the props.)
The music is fun and appropriate. “Happy Days Are Here Again” greets you as you enter. What’s more the music of English accents felt solid from this largely American cast. (Amy Stoller handled dialects.)
On the down side, either this play is too long (nearly three hours, with three acts, two intermissions) or our attention spans have contracted. For a modern audience, this one needs some trimming and faster pacing. The theater is overheated, and the actors could sometimes not be heard in row E.
London Wall – by John Van Druten; directed by Davis McCallum.
WITH: Matthew Gumley (Birkenshaw), Stephen Plunkett (Mr. Brewer), Alex Trow (Miss Hooper), Julia Coffey (Miss Janus), Elise Kibler (Miss Pat Milligan), Laurie Kennedy (Miss Willesden), Christopher Sears (Mr. Hec.Hammond), Katie Gibson (Miss Bufton), Jonathan Hogan (Mr. Walker).
Marion Williams designed the sets, Martha Hally the costumes. Nicole Pearce handles lighting and Jane Shaw the sound.
At the Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street, Manhattan. (212) 315-9434 through March 30th.