Until the 20th century was three-quarters spent, television and movies were strictly censored. Writers in those media pulled their punches, skirting tough social issues and playing naïve on matters of sex and politics. But playwrights didn’t face nearly as many content restrictions as their colleagues in film and TV, and audiences went to the theater for grown-up entertainment.
In an era of rigid content taboos, dramatist John Van Druten (1901-1957) supplied Broadway with intelligent plays in which characters talked forthrightly and with wit about the things that made Hollywood censors squirm. The English-born Van Druten, who became an American citizen in 1944, may not have been a household name, but many of his beautifully crafted plays – among them, Old Acquaintance, The Voice of the Turtle, and Bell, Book and Candle – enjoyed long engagements in New York and were performed all around the United States. He lives on, most prominently, in Cabaret, the endlessly revived musical and landmark Bob Fosse film, based on his comedy-drama, I Am a Camera (which, in turn, was based on The Berlin Stories of Van Druten’s good friend, Christopher Isherwood). This winter New York is having a sort of Van Druten fest, beginning with the Mint Theater Company’s engaging revival of London Wall, an unjustly mislaid West End play from 1931 (to be followed by the Transport Group’s all-female revival of I Remember Mama, which opens March 30).
Van Druten studied law and clerked for a firm of solicitors before transforming himself into a full-time writer. London Wall takes place in a law firm; and the play’s title refers to a thoroughfare in the City of London where the office is located. On the evidence of London Wall, it’s safe to say that Van Druten observed the inhabitants of the legal world, especially the women, with care and empathy. The play depicts four typists, employed at a pittance, with little prospect for social mobility other than fortuitous marriage. These women are of different ages with differing romantic prospects.
The hardboiled Miss Janus (Julia Coffey) has invested 10 years in her job and seven in an unrewarding relationship with a low-level Dutch diplomat. She's fed up with the law firm and on thin ice with her beau. Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler) is a 19-year-old, alone in the world, just entering the workforce. Miss Janus, a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, wants to steer Pat away from the fates of Miss Hooper (Alex Trow), a dewy-eyed romantic who may be putting too much trust in a married man, and Miss Bufton (Katie Gibson), a good-time girl who's about to age out of the romance market.
In addition to the typists, London Wall involves two lawyers – Mr. Walker (Jonathan Hogan), the firm’s senior partner, and the much younger Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), a roué who can’t stop himself hitting on newly hired typists. The cast is filled out by a client, the exasperatingly eccentric Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy); an office boy, Birkenshaw (Matthew Gumley); and Hec (Christopher Sears), who is employed elsewhere in the building and is besotted with Pat.
The plot of London Wall includes some creaky, old-fashioned turns, but these are outweighed by Van Druten's elegant, believable dialogue and his intricately drawn characters. Under the able direction of Davis McCallum (lauded last season for The Whale at Playwrights Horizons), the cast of nine forms a remarkably balanced ensemble. The actors, most of whom are American, navigate the distinctly British text and its antiquated locutions with assurance and dialectal consistency. Amy Stoller, the Mint's long-time dialect coach, deserves special recognition.
Scenic designer Marion Williams has created a sturdy, eye-appealing set that the actors reconfigure between scenes to move the action swiftly from one room in the firm to another. Joshua Yocom has found period props, including antique telephones and telephone switchboard, that enhance the production's verisimilitude. And Nicole Pearce's lighting plot contributes significantly to the professionalism of the enterprise. To find fault with the Mint's London Wall, one would have to quibble about a couple of bad wigs. And who cares about the occasional bad wig?
London Wall is running through April 26 at the Mint Theater Company (311 West 43rd St.). Performances are 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $55 and can be purchased at www.minttheater.org or by calling 866-811-4111.