The law office that serves as the backdrop for “London Wall” — a beguiling vintage piece by John Van Druten that has been revived with period-perfect flair in its Griffin Theatre production — is filled with all the old tools of the office trade: A manual switchboard whose operator can “listen in”; heavy wooden desks; steno pads; ribbons used to tie together the pages of documents; gracefully curved 1920’s telephones.
But it is the occupants of this office, who are caught up in a variety of personal situations, who really capture the era in this often rueful comedy of manners, circa 1930. And they are a captivating bunch as they try to get ahead, in one way or another, in the decade that followed the devastating impact of World War I on British society. It was a society in which women had only recently won the right to vote, yet often still depended on marriage for a secure income and respectable life, even if the post-war shortage of men made finding a suitable husband difficult.
While none of this is fully spelled out, it clearly drives the behavior of the female characters who populate this winningly old-fashioned yet wonderfully sharp, bittersweet, three-act play. And in being so true to its time, the behavior and drives of both the men and women in this story ring eternally true for any office situation. In addition, Robin Witt — a director with a magic touch, who has tapped both the bite and the pathos in “London Wall” — has gathered a cast that seems to have stepped out of the pages of an English magazine of the period with uncanny authenticity and style. The actors make you laugh and cry with them, and more often than not root for them, despite their flaws.
When: Through Feb. 14
Where: Griffin Theatre at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee
Info: (866) 811-4111; www.griffintheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with two intermissions
The backbone of the office is the supremely capable veteran, Miss Janus (an impeccable turn by Vanessa Greenway), who has been “engaged” to an elusive older man in the diplomatic service for seven years. The newest employee is Pat Milligan (Rochelle Therrien, who uses her wide-eyed, expressive face to great effect), the bright, pretty but quite naive 19-year-old who lives on a meager salary, shares a bedsit, and is “friends” with a similarly penniless and naive young writer, Hec Hammond (George Booker, perfectly sweet and lost), who works in the same building.
Pat is hungry for experience, and aches to go to the theater and nice restaurants, so when the office Lothario — the dashing, laughably self-congratulatory Mr. Brewer (Nick Feed, with just the right oily yet seductive charm) — entices her with tickets and more, she cannot entirely resist. She even borrows evening wear from the blonde bombshell of a secretary with a very busy social life, Miss Bufton (Amanda Powell, a superb comedian). Not surprisingly, Pat increasingly must fend off Brewer’s sexual advances.
In the meantime, the office is abuzz with other matters — and winning performances — as the very competent Miss Hooper (Ashley Neal), strives to get a ring on her finger; the mischievous young office boy, Birkinshaw (Michael Saguto) avidly reads the racy letters in a divorce case; and the firm’s important client, the wealthy, will-altering Miss Willesden (Mary Pool), yearns for company, as well as the ear of the chief solicitor, Mr. Walker (Ed Dzialo), who is quite a stickler for decorum.
Rachel M. Sypniewski’s costumes are perfection, from nipped waist suits to shoes and hats, with Jeff Kmiec’s detailed set (including props by Lee Moore, sound by Stephen Ptacek and lighting by Brandon Wardell), fully at play in Witt’s zestily choreographed scene changes.
This play shows Van Druten (a source, along with Christopher Isherwood, of the “Cabaret” story), as a master of the screwball comedy — but one with heart, depth, and a perfect understanding of how social class, financial insecurity and the preoccupations of the striver coalesce among desks and file folders. File “London Wall” alongside such other Griffin hits as “Men Should Weep” and “Flare Path.”