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London Wall

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Elise Kibler and Stephen Plunkett
Photo by Richard Termine.

As expertly revived by the Mint Theater Company, John Van Druten's London Wall offers present-day American theatergoers a glimpse of office sexual politics that is twice-removed from our own culture and time. The setting is a law office in London circa 1931, and the most fascinating character —if not the central one —is Mr. Brewer, a handsome but unremittingly lubricious and selfish solicitor who shamelessly treats the female staff as his own personal harem.

I have no idea if Brewer is the original iteration of this sort of office lothario in art, but I imagine he's one of the first. Since he stalked the stage, we've observed the antics of many similar rakes in theater, film, television, and literature; a few that spring immediately to mind are Kodaly in the musical She Loves Me (and that character's antecedent in the Mikos Laszlo play on which it's based), plus several "alpha males" from the early ‘60s New York business world as depicted satirically in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and more straightforwardly in Mad Men. These works remind us that some aspects of interpersonal relations in business have changed greatly over the decades, others scarcely at all.

In London Wall, Brewer (played by Stephen Plunkett) has selected as his primary target of the moment a young thing named Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler), who diffidently responds to his advances even though it's clear to the audience that she'd be much better off with Hec Hammond (Christopher Sears), the sweet kid who works in a neighboring law office and who's clearly nuts about her. A major subplot concerns Miss Janus (Julia Coffey), who gives older-womanly advice to Pat even as we learn that her own long-term relationship with the man she hopes to marry (a character we never see) is far from blissful.

The performances of the above-named actors are so excellent that one can hardly imagine anyone being better in these roles. The same might be said for Matthew Gumley, Alex Trow, and Katie Gibson as other colorful figures in the office, and for the wonderful Laurie Kennedy as Miss Willesden, an eccentric client of the firm who at first seems to be on hand merely for comic relief but who ends up playing an important role in the plot.

As if all that great acting weren't enough to make this production a treasure, it boasts astoundingly accurate and detailed set design by Marion Williams, including an old-time switchboard (or approximation of same) that's quite something to see. Bravo as well to Joshua Yocom for his one-hundred percent authentic-looking props; I can't imagine where Williams and/or Yocom found some of this stuff, and what kind of hunting was involved. Martha Hally's spot-on costumes complete the time-traveling magic, Nicole Pearce lights everything beautifully, and sound designer Jane Shaw has chosen deliciously mood-setting old recordings to play during scene changes and at the beginning and end of each of the play's three acts. The work of these artists is all the more impressive in that one can assume it was done on a tiny fraction of a Broadway show budget.

The script of London Wall isn't absolutely flawless; some of the material involving the supporting characters seems unnecessary filler. But little matter. Van Druten had a great talent for creating stories of universal interest by limning specific characters in very specific times, places, and situations, here in this play and in such others as I Remember Mama and I Am a Camera. The Mint production of London Wall greatly aids and abets the author in this regard, not only in terms of the design elements but just as importantly through the efforts of the cast and dramaturg/dialect coach Amy Stoller in achieving well-honed accents for each of the characters, from lower-class Cockney to middle class to working class to upper class. (Henry Higgins would have had a field day with this group.) Only stage vet Jonathan Hogan displays a not entirely convincing, in-and-out accent as the firm's patriarch, Mr. Walker, but his performance is otherwise eminently satisfying.

Last but not least —on the contrary, perhaps greatest of all —director Davis McCallum deserves vociferous applause for his near-perfect casting of this play, his thorough understanding of the style of acting required, and his ability to help the actors achieve that style across the board. London Wall is the very best of all the many fine Mint productions I've had the pleasure to attend over the years, an entirely praiseworthy resurrection of a little-known minor masterpiece.

London Wall
Through April 13
Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street., between 8th and 9th Avenues
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