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The White Collar Work Place On Stage
By Elyse Sommer
The business that playwrights and actors seem to love most is show business. Ever since Hamlet declared "All the world's a stage" backstage dramas and comedies have proliferated. This season Playwright Horizon brought a delightful new addition to this genre: Sarah Rule's Stage Kiss.
But the mundane enterprises and those who keep them going also show up on stage though not quite as often. Some examples from past decades that have attracted top talents for successful revivals have been Glengary Glen Ross (1984) about life in a high pressure real estate firm and Other People's Money (1989) about a group of Wall Street sharks headed for a hostile takeover.
This season, Second Stage brought back Jon Robin Baitz's second play, The Substance of Fire ( review) , about a family publishing business facing bankruptcy because of the founder and publisher's stubborn refusal to consider the demands of the market place. Here's a case of current events undercutting what was once a timely and significant story. Unlike other plays whose far more old-fashioned settings engender a combination of nostalgia and prescience, Substance of Fire seems neither old or au courant enough to shake off it's outdated aura.
On the other hand, no play has better dramatized the ethical compromises made by white collar executives we should be able to trust than Harley Granville-Barker's 1905 The Voysey Inheritance. (review of Mint production and Atlantic Theater review) The Madoff Ponzi scheme that's been the white collar crime of our century, would make a new production of The Voysey Inheritance even more timely than the revivals at the Mint in 2000 and the Atlantic Theater in 2006.
Unfortunately our long stretch of economic hardship and the obsolescence of so many jobs has made some office set dramas depressingly timely. Case in point: Last year's splendid revival of J. B. Priestley's 1935 Cornelius ( review ), about a business on the brink of being shuttered by a combination of the '30s depression and obsolescence. I was therefore delighted to learn I'd be seeing Alan Cox who so endearingly portrayed Mr. Cornelius, at 59E59 last year in a new drama, Playing With Grownups ( review ), billed as dealing with provocative contemporary issues. Unfortunately, playwright Hannah Patterson, like Mr. Baitz in Substance of Fire, tried to do too much rather than focus on her most pertinent issues. In this case the play is at its timeliest when discussing how educators (Mr. Cox is here a film studies professor) are finding their careers under siege long before they're old enough to retire.
Another office set revival, John Van Druten's London Wall ( review ), a less issue-oriented office version of a drawing room comedy actually holds very well indeed. It was one of this past season's most enjoyable revivals. The play is rich with nostalgic reminders of another era, an era when being a typist was a female employee's main job opportunity. Though all were respectfully adressed by their surnames, trading that Miss for a Mrs. title was the key to upward mobility. And while the Mint production was true to the look a law office of the period information always found a way of spreading — in this case via the cheeky office boy's shameless listening in on everyone's phone calls. And though London Wall's lecherous Mr. Brewer would certainly risk a sexual harassment suit, enough empowered women in all manner of situations (college, the armed service) make Brewer anything but a totally obsolete character.
Sometimes even a play that is dated in terms of its story details can have a compelling fresh life courtesy of stellar acting and the application of contemporary production values not available when the play was first produced. The secret here is to find an actor to transcend any question of timeliness and, as was the case for the Roundabout's terrific revival of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 Machinal ( review ), to stage it with the scenic bells and whistles available today.