The Mint Theatre is minting some gold this month, as it brings us the American premiere of a little known John Van Druten play from the early 1930s. LONDON WALL is its name, which is the address of Walker, Windermere & Co., a London law firm, and it is populated with a complete staff, from head man Walker to office manager Brewer to the Misses Hooper, Janus, Bufton and Milligan, the secretarial pool. There’s an office boy named Birkenshaw, an elderly client named Miss Willesden, and an ardent young man who works for another firm downstairs; he is crazy about Ms. Milligan but it takes him three acts to figure out what to do about that.
As impeccably cast by Davis McCallum who staged it all with great aplomb, it’s a lost gem that is so deserving of the attention that’s been paid to it by this very reliable organization, the Mint, under the artistic direction of Jonathan Bank. For starters, they’ve found a bevy of young ladies who are not only attractive and keen, they each come up with surprises in giving life to their characters.
Elise Kibler as the nineteen year old newcomer to the firm, is a refreshing new face who, in 1931 when the play was new would have been scooped up by a major Hollywood studio for a seven year stint, where they’d have changed her name and turned her into the new Janet Gaynor. Julia Coffey as the thirty five year old ten year veteran of the firm would have found herself busy also in film playing all the roles Ruth Hussey and Claire Trevor didn’t get.
Laurie Kennedy, a fine character actress, whose photos indicate she is far younger and more physically attractive than the slightly addled old client she plays, would have been back on stage season after season playing the kind of parts that gave constant employment to the likes of Lucille Watson, Mildred Natwick, Evelyn Varden, Audrey Christie and a handful of other first rate character actresses.
Stephen Plunkett, who plays the bantam rooster office lothario, would have joined the likes of Patrick Knowles and Ralph Bellamy playing second leads, the man the star lady turns down in the final reel. Jonathan Hogan, a veteran character actor would have worked at all the studios everywhere and would have been kept so busy he’d probably never have returned to the stage (which would have been our loss) by following in the footsteps of James Gleason, Lionel Barrymore, Gene Lockhart and the like. His performance in this, with only one major scene, is funny and truthful. He brings conviction and understanding to every moment; it’s all under playing at its most artful.
The ardent, awkward young man who dotes on the “new girl” is played to the hilt by Christopher Sears who reminds one of the very young Warren Beatty in his earliest outings on stage in plays like William Inge’s A Loss of Roses in 1959. And Matthey Gumley as the wiseacre office boy, has charm and a fine cockney accent, both of which he uses with great gusto. He’d have been runner up to Mickey Rooney in “Andy Hardy Gets A Job”.
If I have any suggestion at all, I request that director McCallum have a word with his young players Sears and Kibler. Mr. Sears needs some toning down, and the charming Ms. Kibler needs to give us just a tad more energy. At the moment, as though she is anticipating her career ahead on screen, she is playing with nuance and originality, but it’s all on the teeny tiny side. In other words, she can hardly be heard, and though this is appealing in her early moments when she is the complete neophyte working at her first job, it doesn’t quite do as she matures and becomes embroiled in the plot as the three acts play out. It wouldn’t take a ten minute rehearsal to fix these two, for they have both come up with vivid characterizations. He’s on the right track, he just needs toning down. She has found all sorts of ways to make Miss Pat Milligan an appealing young leading lady, but we need from her a sign that she knows she is in a theatre, not on a soundstage.
I hope this production has an extended run. Yes, it’s a story of the plight of women workers in the early thirties, of the indignities they suffered and the limited options that were available to them, but it’s totally identifiable today. And Mr. Van Druten has a great talent for dialogue that probes and pokes so that out of the mouths of his people come some pearls for us all to ponder and enjoy.
LONDON WALL by John Van Druten is onstage thru April 13, 2014 at the Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street,3rd Floor, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.