by Joan Kane · February 25, 2014
Once upon a time, before there were computers, feminism and the morning after pill there was carbon paper, filing cabinets, typewriters, and low paying jobs for unmarried women. Male bosses used their economic power to exploit and harass them. John Van Druten’s London Wall, now playing at the Mint Theater, explores the perilous lives of single women employed as shorthand typists in the law office of Walker, Windermere & Co. This play presents themes of gender wage gap and sexual harassment in a brilliantly nuanced production directed by Davis McCallum.
Originally produced in 1931 on London’s West End, London Wall is making it’s American premier. Van Druten’s other plays (I Remember Mama, Bell, Book and Candle, Old Acquaintance and I am A Camera –on which the musical Cabaret is based) also explored topics like gender politics, sexual identity, female desire and pre-marital sex.
London Wall is a naturalistic, character driven, fast-paced story that depicts the lives and love affairs of six shorthand typists. Miss Bufton (Kate Gibson) has an active social life that forces her to regularly arrive at work late. Miss Hooper (Alex Trow) is seeing a married man and hopes he will leave his wife to marry her. Miss Janus (Julia Coffey), the eldest of the women, has been engaged for seven years with hopes of being married. Miss Pat Mulligan (Elise Kibler) is new to the company, and is in a platonic relationship with Mr.Hec Hammond (Christopher Sears), a writer and worker from the office below. Wealthy society matron and client, Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy) is considered by the men of the office to be a crackpot. Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), Mr. Walker (Jonathan Hogan) and Birkenshaw (Matthew Gumley) are the men who rule over the typists.
The action focuses on Pat Mulligan, who is young and inexperienced in the affairs of the heart and office politics. Miss Janus, older and wiser, makes it her business to protect Pat from the deceptive, Casanova-like ways of their boss, Mr.Brewer. Pat does not heed Miss Janus’ warnings and dates Mr. Walker. When Pat refuses to respond to his physical advances in kind, he pins her against a file cabinet and forces himself on her. To protect herself from a sexual assault Pat is forced to burn him with a cigarette. Like today, “no” did not mean “no”.
In a subplot we learn of the paltry wages that Pat earns when a client of the firm, Miss Willesden, visits the office and quietly inquires about Pat’s salary. Miss Willesden worries that Pat cannot sustain herself on this sum. What is a woman to do? In the 1930’s the general solution for a woman being badly under paid was for her to get married to a man who got a decent wage. Then as now, this did not work out for everyone. Is this play relevant to audiences in 2014? You bet it is. It is a call to action and action still needs to be taken. According to the Institute For Women’s Policy Research, in four out of ten families women are the equal if not the main breadwinner with more college and graduate degrees than men. Yet they continue to earn considerably less than men. They earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, a gender wage gap of 23 percent. In terms of sexual assault The AFL_CIO and the Bureau of Labor reports that 12.7 percent of all female violent crimes were committed while the victim was working or on duty. These acts of violence include rape and sexual assault.
The detailed period world of London Wall was created by the production team of set designer Marion Williams, costume designer Martha Hally, lighting designer, Nicole Pearce, prop designer Joshua Yocom, sound designer Jane Shaw and wig designer Gerard Kelly. The dramaturgy is by Amy Stoller.
Bravo to the Mint Theater for offering New York audiences this entertaining exploration of gender inequality.