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February 28, 2014

She gave at the office

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two rare and interesting off-Broadway revivals, Keen Company's Middle of the Night and the Mint Theater's London Wall. Here's an excerpt.

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Paddy Chayefsky doesn't exactly need to be "revived," seeing as how "Network" is even more admired now than when it first came out in 1976. But nowadays most people know him only for that ferociously prophetic satire of broadcast news and for "Marty," the 1953 live-TV drama whose film version snagged a best-picture Oscar and turned him into a Hollywood screenwriter. Few recall that Chayefsky also wrote two stage plays, "Middle of the Night" (1956) and "The Tenth Man" (1959), that both had long runs on Broadway but haven't been seen in New York for years.

Now Keen Company, the Off-Broadway troupe that specializes to consistently fine effect in what its mission statement refers to as "sincere plays," has exhumed "Middle of the Night," the story of a 53-year-old New York widower (Jonathan Hadary) who falls hard for his 23-year-old secretary (Nicole Lowrance). Adapted for the stage by Chayefsky from one of his hour-long "Philco Television Playhouse" scripts, it's a kitchen-sink midlife-crisis drama with a strongly ethnic flavor--Jerry is a down-to-earth Jewish garment manufacturer, Betty a needy, emotionally immature Gentile...

Mr. Hadary and Ms. Lowrance make an affecting couple, and Jonathan Silverstein's pointed staging succeeds in papering over most of the flaws. The result is a cultural period piece that still has the power to touch the heart...

COFFEY.jpegJohn Van Druten, who used to be big (he wrote five Broadway hits in the '40s and '50s) and is now forgotten, has lately come to the attention of the Mint Theater Company, another first-class Off-Broadway troupe that specializes in "worthy but neglected plays." The Mint has just mounted the U.S. premiere of his "London Wall," a 1931 comedy set in a London law office. Unlike "Middle of the Night," this witty, impeccably crafted tale of a quartet of working women and the benighted men for whom they work has a distinctly contemporary flavor, enough so that you'll come away wondering whether Van Druten might deserve credit for inventing the workplace comedy long before it found favor on TV.

Part of what makes "London Wall" so involving is that Van Druten heightens the play's emotional stakes by homing in on the plight of Blanche Janus (perfectly played by Julia Coffey), the firm's sardonic, wised-up senior secretary, who is 35, a notch or two older than her colleagues, and all too aware of what awaits her should she fail to find a husband: "Well, what else am I to do? Stick here, and go on living at home looking after father? I'm the only one left. And then he'll die, and then what else is there? Rooms, or a boarding house, or a club for women who can't get married? Earning three pounds a week for the rest of my life. No!" Yes, "London Wall" is a romcom with a (mostly) happy ending, but the fact that Blanche is up against it--and knows it--keeps you from getting too cozy...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 28, 2014 11:00 AM

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