NEW YORK TIMES
February 25, 2014
In the early 1930s, when the Great Depression had the planet in its grip, the playwright John van Druten could be counted on to provide Broadway audiences with a particular brand of escape: sophisticated modern comedies set amid London’s privileged classes.
The many smart women in van Druten plays like “There’s Always Juliet,” “After All” and “The Distaff Side” wrestled with questions of autonomy and purpose. But if they joined the work force, it wasn’t for the cash. Of that, they had plenty.
Money is hardly a given, however, for the typists at the center of van Druten’s lively 1931 office comedy, “London Wall,” a provocative, socially conscious bit of fun that never made it to Broadway. Watching Davis McCallum’s brisk, pitch-perfect production at the Mint Theater Company feels like stumbling across a lost film classic by Howard Hawks: How did this fresh and fizzy thing fall into obscurity?
At a London law firm, Miss Janus (Julia Coffey) has spent too many years waiting for her elusive boyfriend to marry her. Working for measly pay in an unfulfilling job, she has zero patience with Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), a sleek Casanova in a three-piece suit who’s eyeing the teenage typist Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler) as his next conquest.
Like the god whose name she shares, Miss Janus guards the door. She tries to point out what Pat is too naïve to grasp: that her friend Hec (Christopher Sears), a rumpled young writer with stand-up hair and clothes that have never met a tailor, is the worthier romantic prospect, even if he hasn’t the sense to declare his affection.
In a production filled with fine performances — including Matthew Gumley’s as Birkenshaw, a gossiping toad of an office boy — Ms. Coffey is smashing. When Miss Janus toys with Mr. Brewer, the screwball sparring has tiny daggers and bits of broken glass in it.
“London Wall” lampoons male romantic terror and presumption, but it also acknowledges the fears of women who will never earn a decent living, to whom marriage seems necessary for survival.
“Whenever I see a pretty young girl like you,” an elderly woman tells Pat, “I always think: ‘What will she be when she is old? Will she have someone to look after her?’ ”
Back in the day, you could pack all that substance into a play and still call it a romantic comedy.