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The Best Of Everything
By Elyse Sommer
Megan, the girl Don married after the break-up of his previous marriage started out in the typing pool before becoming Don's secretary. Like Jaffe's Gregg, Megan is an aspiring actress. As for Caroline, Jaffe's main character who had the ambition and smarts to climb out of the typist-secretary ghetto to become an editor, she's got much in common with Mad Men's Peggy Olson whose copywriting career has its share of personal heartache and frustration about prevailing glass ceiling issues.
We should thank that Mad Men episode for renewing interest in the working girl's mind set and milieu that Rona Jaffe so entertainingly explored in her first best seller and for giving Julie Kramer and Amy Wilson's stage adaptation a nifty promotional tie in to the popular series. Kramer and Wilson's play now being given a limited run at the Here Art Center clearly doesn't have a budget to allow for the snazzy production values of either Mad Men or the technicolor star studded film version of the novel (Joan Crawford, Hope Lange, super model Suzy Parker), However, this The Best of Everything is smartly crafted, staged and acted to make contemporary audiences appreciate Jaffe's very savvy portrait of the working and personal lives of young women more than forty years ago.
Women have come a long way since Jaffe's once shockingly frank look at young women eager for the best life had to offer in the face of limited opportunities and a value system defining what that " best" entailed. The Kramer and Wilson script sticks close enough to the book's characters and plot, to make the story of five Fabian Publishing Company's typists come across as almost ludicrously funny. Yet our amusement doesn't come at the expense of empathy for these eager for life young women. What we laugh at is not them, but the mores that dictated and restricted their ambitions. Instead of the brass ring associated with good fortune, the ring to catch for these girls was gold and sized to fit the third finger of the left hand. Since the life of young people seeking a taste of New York's excitement and glamour can still be fraught with loneliness, insecurity and pain, especially in terms of romantic relationships, you're likely to find this new look at a dated best seller an emotionally engaging theatrical experience.
The excellent 8-member cast includes co-script developer Amy Wilson as Amanda Farrow Fabian's only female editor, with Sarah Wilson as Radcliffe graduate Caroline, the imperious older woman's much put-upon (but not for long) secretary. Caroline represents the best and the brightest of women entering the work force in the '50s her initial ambition was to marry her Mr. Right who turns out to be Mr. Wrong when he jilts her to marry an oil heiress.
In between Caroline's days in the secretarial pool and her final confrontation with Amanda as an equal — which deepens the sense of the need for mentoring rather than competitive female relationships — Caroline remains closely connected with her typing pool buddies. After all, she was subject to the same societal pressure to find fulfillment through marriage, the burden of virginity and the fears and dangers associated with its loss. Unlike the 36-year old Farrow who, except for a married lover without whom she probably couldn't have nailed that editorial post, she's still part of this group portrait.
To fill in that group portrait, there's the naive April (a delightful Alicia Sable). For comic relief we have the office gossip, Mary Agnes (Molly Lloyd managing to be hilarious without being cartoonish), Brenda (a more sarcasm tinged performance Sas Goldberg) who pares three months of her pregnancy to be able to work past the then commonly enforced rule about not being allowed work once a pregnancy became highly visible. The most troubled and saddest character is Gregg, the part-timer with acting ambitions (a poignant Hayley Treider).
While men were the dominant characters in any publishing or advertising office in Jaffe's day, this is the story of the women who brought them coffee and took their dictation. It's quite apt therefore that the cast in The Best of Everything, the play, therefore features just two actors, Jordan Geiger as Eddie, the selfish and unworthy man of Caroline's girlhood dreams, and Tom O'Keefe to play all the others: Two Fabian editors (Shalimar, the lecherous old sexual harasser; and Caroline's friend the hard-drinking much older Mike Rice whose idea of not taking advantage of her is a phone sex affair). . .'April's blind date Ronnie. . . David, the producer Gregg loves too intensely.
Tom O'Keefe gives each man his own touch of individuality but in one of the play's best scenes, Director Kramer uses that multiple casting to create a clever visual metaphor to point to men all being pretty interchangeable in what they represent to the women and what the women represent to them. That scene shows the women dancing with identical grey flannel suit cutouts dancing to Roy Orbison's "Hey Miss Fanny." Kramer also uses Jill BC Du Boff's sound track of popular period tunes to avoid the tedium of the blackouts between the play's sixteen scenes. The Vincent Youmans/Irving Caesar tune "Sometimes I'm Happy" (written in 1925 but a much recorded standard in the '50s) that leads into the play pretty much sums up the period's prevailing female happiness mantra: "Sometimes I'm happy/ Sometimes I'm blue/ My disposition/ Depends on you."
Nothing fancy about Lauren Helpern's scenic design but it's a serviceable in taking us around the Fabian's offices. Daniel Urlie’s true to the period costumes make up for the nuts and bolts scenery.
Before getting immersed in the next season of Mad Men, you could do a lot worse than spending 90 minutes with Caroline, Mary Agnes, April, Brenda and Gregg -- and yes the tight-lipped, Miss Farrow.
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