From “The Apartment” to “Sex and the City” and beyond, writers have created trenchant comedy combining dramas of office life with sex and the single girl. It’s a delight, therefore, to discover that one of the sharpest in the genre dates from 1931. Unearthing John Van Druten’s forgotten “London Wall” would have been enough, but helmer Tricia Thorns’ goes one better. Her beautifully judged, immaculately acted revival isn’t just theatrical archeology, it’s a treat.
Set in the offices of a law firm 55 years before “L.A. Law,” the women of “London Wall” aren’t so much jockeying for position with men as looking for escape routes. The nearest they get to having a career is rising from the rank of a typist, like naive 19-year-old Pat Milligan (demure Maia Alexander), to becoming a secretary like Blanche Janus (Alix Dunmore), whose brisk efficiency has kept her at the firm for seven years.
Pat spends evenings with nicely-brought-up Hec Hammond (Timothy O’Hara, ricocheting comically between perfectly formal demeanor and gauche outbursts of true feeling) but she is so attractive and artless, she’s unaware that she’s also firmly in the sights of rising lawyer and full-time office lothario Mr. Brewer (easeful Alex Robertson).
One of the most refreshing things about the play is its no-nonsense, sympathetic attitude to women’s views on sex at a time when such things were barely acknowledged, let alone expressed. That’s particularly intriguing given that it’s written by a man, although once you realize he also wrote the plays “I Am a Camera” (which begat “Cabaret”) and “Bell, Book and Candle,” a disguised depiction of homosexuality, things fall into place.
Van Druten weaves notably deft comedy out of his collective depiction of female characters all individually attempting to handle the dilemma of single womanhood. For example, there’s Miss Hooper (pragmatic Emily Bowker), who hopes she’s “playing her cards” right in her relationship with a married man. Via prolonged flirting but ultimate withholding of sex, will she convince him to divorce his wife?
The still relevant balancing of the “wanting it all” equation between personal satisfaction and financial/career security is brought out in numerous guises, not least in querulous Miss Willesden (witty Marty Cruickshank,) the firm’s elderly, deliciously over-dressed client who is as eccentric as she is wealthy.
Yet although the action ultimately pivots around the sentimental education of Pat and Hec, the still center of it is Blanche, who is badly let down by her longstanding boyfriend.
Lean as a question mark, Dunmore wears Emily Stuart’s nicely cut crimson, calf-length skirt and cream blouse almost as a badge of authority. Her breakdown comes as a powerfully affecting shock thanks in no small measure to her foregoing crisp manner. The idea of being permanently on the shelf at 35 may have dated, but Dunmore’s portrayal of the potentially strangling fear and loneliness is immensely vivid.
The fact that her pain registers as powerfully as it does is also a tribute to helmer Thorns’ balancing act. The sense of busy office activity is kept moving as people rush in and out of the tiny space, but scenes which need weight are given room to breathe without growing overindulgent.
Although the discussion of women’s power being rooted in how they use or withhold their bodies would seem to tie the play to its period, the discussion is still strikingly pertinent. For all its strengths, it’s unlikely this surprising discovery would withstand a grand-scale production, but in Thorns’ hands on this small scale, it’s an outright charmer of immense possibility.