Two Hits, One Miss
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The Mint does it again. With its smashing new production of “London Wall,” the company delivers the perfect gift of warmth and humanity in a long and frigid winter. John Van Druten’s 1931 romantic comedy, set in a small law office, concerns the trials and tribulations of women in the typing pool as they go about their business, fall in love, and come to their senses. The two central characters are Miss Janus, a senior office worker unsure of her future, and new arrival Pat Milligan, whose favor is sought by a junior partner as well a clerk from another firm. Everyone in the office is adjusting to a changing world, where women are now in the workforce and once predictable futures are no more.
It is a rich and wonderfully told tale, and under Davis McCallum’s detailed direction there isn’t a moment that isn’t fully realized or a character who isn’t in some way sympathetic.
Julia Coffey as Miss Janus gives one of the most exciting performances of the year as a woman who loves too well if not wisely, and so faces a crisis. The power of her performance comes in its understatement, yet despite Miss Janus’ British reserve her inner workings are crystal clear. Elise Kibler plays 19-year-old Pat with freshness and vulnerability as she negotiates the rocky waters of work and love.
The Mint, NYTW Workshop engage in different ways, while “Bikeman” falls flat
The supporting cast also helps bring this world to life. Matthew Gumley is the cranky and charmingly underhanded office boy. Stephen Plunkett plays the firm’s junior lawyer with a passion for Pat and just the right amount of sunny manipulation. Christopher Sears is outstanding as the clerk who is in love with Pat and seeks advice — and courage — from Miss Janus. Jonathan Hogan as the head of the law firm is surprisingly hilarious, and Laurie Kennedy as the crazy client Miss Willesden is endearing in a batty British way.
The story is complex, but it’s easy to get absorbed and lost in this world — and to wish the ending didn’t mean a return to cold, contemporary New York.
Caryl Churchill’s new piece “Love and Information” is very likely to be polarizing. The nearly two-hour, intermissionless evening is comprised of roughly 60 playlets. The overriding themes are the ways love is expressed and how we receive and process information, each piece featuring characters in some form of love relationship at an important or transitional moment. They are diverse — from funny to banal to heart-wrenching — and Churchill’s use of language and economy of expression are sensational.
What makes the evening so fascinating, though, is its meta structure and how the audience is soon trained to gather information in very short scenes, some less than a minute. The structure of the play engages our own associations, biases, and feelings about love and relationships so that each of us unconsciously fills in the context for the scenes we all witness together. Discussing it afterward with my companion, we disagreed strongly about a particular setting and then realized we had each interpreted a few chairs and a couple of interactions based on our own background.
The 15-member company plays more than 100 roles and under James MacDonald’s direction, the piece is both sharp and fluid. Miriam Buether’s scenery and Peter Mumford’s lighting are critical in providing both literal and evocative meaning for the audience.
It takes a few scenes to recognize the unique mode of dramatic engagement Churchill has created. That may make some with more traditional tastes uncomfortable, but if you strap in and go for the ride, it is fascinating, exciting, and rewarding.
The essential moral question regarding “Bikeman, a 9/11 Play” is whether one can inject oneself into a life-threatening situation and then claim to be a hero for not dying. The play is based on Thomas F. Flynn’s poetic memoir of 9/11 about how he grabbed his bike and pedaled down into the chaos of the World Trade Center. In a stream of free verse, Flynn sings his own praises and drapes himself in a dusty mantle of nobility for surviving the day. It is discomfiting, even repellant that Flynn never actively helps another person or focuses on anything but his own experience and observations and yet portrays himself the metaphoric Everyman of this tragedy.
Worse yet is the terrible poetry. Flynn has the ego of Walt Whitman and the talent of Rod McKuen. He writes like an adolescent with a head full of Sylvia Plath and a pathological dependency on the thesaurus.
From the opening, where Flynn seems upset that the impatiens in his garden gave him no indication of what was to come, to an extended piece on being trapped in a parking garage filling with dust while he refuses to let go of his bike, to his watching people falling from the buildings while “the frail, flawed tower vomits its guts out,” the laughable amateurishness of the writing demeans the real human suffering even as he uses it for self-aggrandizement.
Director Michael Bush has made this more a pageant than a play, and he has enlisted Robert Cuccioli, no stranger to outsized performances, to play Tom. To be fair, Flynn’s doggerel doesn’t give Cuccioli many opportunities for subtlety, but his pompous performance makes the character every bit as irritating and overwrought as the verse.
In all the stories I’ve heard about 9/11, one constant has been the concern and heartbreak for others who faced much greater challenges than many of us. I have never seen this tragedy used as a “song of myself,” and if that’s not strictly speaking immoral, it is deplorable.
LONDON WALL | Mint Theater Company | 311 W. 43rd St. | Through Apr. 20: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.: Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $55; ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | Two hrs., 30 min., with one intermission
LOVE AND INFORMATION | New York Theatre Workshop | Minetta Lane Theater | 18 Minetta Ln., btwn. Sixth Ave. & Macdougal St. | Through Mar. 23: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m. ;Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 3 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. | $65-$85; telecharge.com or 212-279-4200 | One hr., 50 min., no intermission
BIKEMAN | BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center | 199 Chambers St., btwn. Greenwich & West Sts. | Schedule varies | $39-$79; tickets.tribecapac.org or 212-220-1460 | 50 min., no intermission