The renowned playwright John Van Druten (Bell, Book and Candle, I Am a Camera which inspired Cabaret) stated in a 1951 interview that “I have never been a man for messages.” After viewing London Wall directed by Davis McCallum and currently at the Mint Theater, I would disagree. In writing about the nature of relationships between men and women in the work environment, Van Druten has loaded his play with vital themes against the trending political backdrop where many women feel that “the war on women” is real. Though he is not didactic and always remains entertaining, humorous and prescient, Van Druten’s play steers us to “the handwriting on the London Wall.” And on that wall, if we follow what he has written, we must not ignore or diminish the timeless reminder that encourages us to define our own happiness and not allow the social culture to delineate it for us.
In London Wall, Van Druten reveals that as women enter the workforce and establish themselves in an environment where they compete with men, the fireworks will fly. He suggests that there will be repercussions that must be dealt with in temperance, or the setting will become larded with sexual harassment and political grandstanding. Unless the potential for abuse is recognized and standards of behavior are clarified, the working environment will be predatory and nullifying. In such a negative, despairing workplace, employees will be like automatons, and their efficiency and effectiveness will be greatly impaired.
The play dissects the human interactions in a solicitor’s office. There are the usual suspects: the secretaries, clerks and counsel. Though the technology has changed from press-copiers to faxes and computers, the pecking order back then was similar to today’s. The men are in the very top positions and the women are feeding them their materials and smoothing their operations. The ages of the women vary. Miss Janus (a fine Julia Coffey), who has been there the longest and holds sway over the younger women, is in a long-term relationship and intends to get married. Younger women Miss Hooper (Alex Trow), Miss Bufton (Katie Gibson), and the youngest, Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler), have boyfriends. All the women look to the security of a husband and marriage, and office gossip revolves around this. Marriage is the culturally accepted route to happiness, so one does not end up frightfully and horribly alone like Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy).
The villain comes in the form of a handsome solicitor, though not yet a partner in the firm, a Mr. Brewer (a smarmy, slick Stephen Plunkett). Mr. Brewer knows he is “a catch” and every woman in her right mind wants him. The culture has prompted him to believe this and because of his looks, position and standing women have not discouraged him. In real life the Van Druten scenario has played out too many times to imagine, and though women should be more sensible, and most are nowadays, there are those who encourage such men out of desperation. The play is loaded with such male-female situations and Van Druten points up the hazards related to such socially designated “male” and “female” roles/interactions in bringing great unhappiness.
Van Druten’s characters have defined themselves according to cultural stereotypes. Each is at a different point on the learning curve of discovering his or her identity separate and apart from what the culture assumes it should be. All are looking for a happiness that society implies should be theirs. But they are following traditional patterns. For men it is to have many women. For women it is to be married.
Whether these characters will find happiness in such roles is unclear, and Van Druten suggests that they may be blowing smoke rings around themselves. Nevertheless, they enact their parts with hope. Brewer, the single man, the “cock of the rock,” is in the midst of “hens.” It is the capstone of the culture that he pursue the youngest, naivest, pretty “chick” who is slower to catch on than the other experienced “fowl” who recognize a predator rooster when they see him. Van Druten has created his perfect cultural barnyard and set the character of Brewer loose in it to muck around with the “birds.” What occurs is an evolving imbroglio which would be unavoidable under the best work conditions where behavior standards between men and women have been established and spelled out. They have not in the office of Walker, Windermere & Co. The result is humorous, telling and explosive, and how the playwright spools the action is insightful and clever.
Van Druten understands the timelessness of human nature and society. The play reveals that stereotypical cultural roles are dangerous. In playing their “designated” parts out of fear, individuals deny themselves the right to establish their own definitions of happiness and contentment. If they define themselves and decide what they want and it turns out they are different or seek another way, they are forced to wear cultural shame. The more institutional and hierarchical the setting, oftentimes, the worse it is. In selecting this solicitor’s office, the playwright has revealed the societal norms and mores in microcosm and revealed the larger scale of damaging impact these mores have on individuals.
However, the play ends on very hopeful notes because of the empathy of Miss Willesden (an excellent Laurie Kennedy) and the forcefulness of Mr. Walker, senior partner at the law firm (a superb and moment-to-moment acting turn by the marvelous Jonathan Hogan). As appropriate, Van Druten shows there is enlightenment and growth for some characters. For others, the blindness continues.
The director and ensemble have delivered the meaningful currency of this wonderful playwright who is undergoing a resurgence, as well he should. London Wall is being performed at the Mint Theater through April 13.
Cast: Matthew Gumley, Stephen Plunkett, Alex Trow, Julia Coffey, Elise Kibler, Laurie Kennedy, Christopher Sears, Katie Gibson, Jonathan Hogan