Chicago Theatre Review
Treading Water in the Steno Pool
London Wall – Griffin Theatre
How is it that John Van Druten’s 1931 office comedy never became a big hit? This smart, subtly sexy play, by the author of the more famous “Bell, Book and Candle,” “I Remember Mama” and “I Am a Camera” (later adapted into the musical “Cabaret”), is filled with charismatic characters, magnetic melodrama and some biting social commentary about that time period. It’s also an educational look at what office life was like during the Depression years. It succinctly captures life and the office politics of a time when steno pads and typewriters were the iPhones and computers of the day.
Telephones required a switchboard operator, a secretary’s service was summoned by a buzzer, not an intercom or office phone line, and there was significant inequality between men and women’s salaries, as well as the kinds of jobs they were allowed to perform. Possessing the right skills, a woman could, at best, hope to be hired for a position in the steno pool, where she’d tread water until she either worked her way up to secretary or was rescued Mr. Right. Then her life would be elevated to the regal position of housewife and a mother.
Talented director Robin Witt has proven experience casting and staging other plays from around this same time period. She’s responsible for excellent productions of Ferber and Kaufman’s “Stage Door,” as well as Terrence Rattigan’s “Flare Path” and a breathtaking Midwest premiere of “Men Should Weep.” With this seldom-produced three-act gem, enjoying its first Chicago staging, she’s carefully devoted attention to every detail. Her direction wisely utilizes the intimate theatre space, choreographing this corporate mating dance within just a few feet from the theatergoers. Ms. Witt understands and incorporates the politics of body language, especially important between her young lovers. Then there’s Jeff Kmiec’s beautiful, multilevel scenic design that’s period perfect, dressed with authentic props and set dressing by Lee Moore. Stephen Ptacek’s nostalgic soundtrack helps transport the audience instantly to a gentler era, and Rachel M. Sypniewski’s Depression Era costumes are thoughtfully crafted and spot-on.
The always excellent Vanessa Greenway as Miss Janus is the sharpshooter who actually holds the reins of this office. As the employee with the most seniority, Ms. Greenway’s lead secretary maintains a very professional persona while subtly offering maternal advice and protection toward newbie teenage typist, Pat Milligan (the lovely and completely captivating Rochelle Therrien). Miss Janus sees and hears everything going on around the law firm and she wisely understands what’s going on, even when others around her are missing the obvious. But Miss Janus has her own problems that she must solve, as well. When she suddenly learns that a longtime boyfriend has decided to leave her she begins to re-evaluate her life. This, coupled with her confrontations with office lothario, Mr. Brewer (nicely played by Nick Freed, without ever turning the character into a stereotype), give this exquisite actress a showcase in which to shine.
Vanessa Greenway is superbly matched by all the actresses playing her coworkers, each with his or her own backstory. Miss Hooper, executed with humor and a no-nonsense, gritty determination by the wonderful Ashley Neal, is involved romantically with a married man. Amanda Powell, as Miss Bufton, is kind and unintentionally funny, gently resisting the urge to overplay her role as the socially active “everybody’s girl” of the office. She’s the employee who’s always exhausted at work because she’s out late every night. Michael Saguto, as fast-talking Birkinshaw, plays a likable office busy-body and jack-of-all-trades, a young man who’s constantly in motion. Ed Dzialo is strong and decisive, yet empathetic, as Mr. Walker, the senior partner of the law firm office; and George Booker nicely portrays Pat’s shy, good-looking young shipping clerk suitor, Hec Hammond, with a fresh earnestness that makes every entrance a treat. The skilled character actress Mary Poole appears as the law firm’s eccentric, but lovable wealthy client, Miss Willsesden. She turns in a fine portrayal of the elderly lady with the garish wardrobe who’s always revising her will.
Keeping with their mission statement, Griffin Theatre has once again created a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre by one of Britain’s unsung dramatic masters. This forgotten workplace melodrama is a classic. It was way ahead of its time when it was written and it remains a fascinating look at the way things were. As it follows four single, underpaid, professional women, working hard to make ends meet as stenographer/typists, this exceptional production sheds light on a bygone era. The play not only demonstrates how far we’ve come, it inspires audiences with wisdom, wit and compassion.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 9-February 14 by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 866-811-4111 or by going to www.griffintheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com