Thursday, October 2, 2014

TV Review: Mint Theater’s ‘London Wall,’ on PBS’ ‘Theater Close-Up’

One of my major regrets is that, even though I blog daily, I just do not have the time, energy or patience to write on every subject that grabs my interest. My pangs of conscience are keenest when I don’t get to review all the shows I have attended, since one of the inspirations for my little Internet enterprise was the “theater diary” faithfully maintained by Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies.

Of all the productions just beyond my blogger’s grasp, the one that bothered me the most was London Wall, a 1931 workplace dramedy by John Van Druten, best known for I Am a Camera (an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories that, in turn, inspired the musical Cabaret), Bell, Book and Candle and I Remember Mama. Mounted in late winter and early spring, it admirably fulfilled the ambition of the Off-Broadway troupe The Mint Theater Co. to revive interest, through painstaking craft and care, in vintage plays that have been inexplicably neglected since their original productions.

When I heard that the play would be, in effect, shown again, as part of a new PBS series, Theater Close-Up, I was doubly motivated to write about the event. You see, the latter, a collaboration between Channel 13 and numerous non-profit Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters, reminds me of nothing so much as a similarly ambitious venture from my youth: Theater in America, which went out into the regional theater scene then starting to explode outside New York.  

If I had to point to an inspiration for my longtime interest in theater, especially classic comedies and dramas, it was the latter show. During my high school years, in the mid-to-late Seventies, its productions piqued my interest in the likes of Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, O’Neill, Rostand, and George S. Kaufman, with some of the best actors of the day (Tammy Grimes, Peter Donat, Frank Langella, Blythe Danner, and Susan Sarandon). After college, with leisure time (and some limited money) available for the first time, I was able to attend live performances at last. 

Theater in America was eventually subsumed under the rubric of the still-running Great Performances—a shame, I thought, as theater deserves to stand apart from opera, classical music and dance. I’m not sure who is the creative godfather for greenlighting Theater Close-Up now—a Young Turk with no memory of the past, or an aging baby boomer like me. But the decision shows TV execs that, like the Mint Theater itself, it’s never too late to revive something from the past.

The TV broadcast reminded me of why I had so enjoyed the performance of London Wall in the first place. The introduction of women into the workplace is a long-settled fact, but the predatory male exploiting his power remains as much a presence in today’s U.S. offices as in the pre-war London solicitor’s office of Van Druten’s setting, so the play hasn’t dated. Moreover, his expert comic timing—along with serious overtones posed by the precarious state of aging single women—did not get lost in the translation from an intimate small-theater venue like the Mint’s to television.

I wrote just now that I was glad of the intense focus on drama that this series affords away from the Great Performances umbrella. But, in one sense, this show does merit inclusion under the old banner, for this broadcast was another opportunity to appreciate fine performances by Julia Coffey as Miss Janus, the super-efficient senior typist and personal secretary at the firm with an unexpected vulnerability; Jonathan Hogan as Mr. Walker, the senior partner in the solicitor’s office; Stephen Plunkett as the office lecher, more enthralled by his own charm than the pretty young things that always catch his eye; and Elise Kibler as Pat Milligan, the naïve young typist who becomes the latter’s prey.

Theater in America was hosted by Hal Holbrook; Theater Close-Up is introduced by a later generation’s theater luminary, Sigourney Weaver. From the episode I saw tonight—which included a post-performance interview with the Mint Theater’s artistic director, Jonathan Banks—Theater Close-Up will shine a spotlight on small companies away from the ballyhoo of Broadway.

The series will continue on successive Thursdays on Channel 13 at 10 PM, with repeat broadcasts on Sunday evenings following Masterpiece. WLIW21 will air the series on Monday evenings beginning Oct. 6 at 10:30 PM. If the rest of the series is as good as this inaugural opening, a new generation of theater fans will be as inspired as I was by public broadcasting’s offerings nearly four decades ago.

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