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TV vs Theater: Off Broadway’s Mint Theater on WNET’s Theater Close-Up

The lives, loves and letdowns of women in an office in John Van Druten’s 1931 play “London Wall” were presented a little differently at the Mint Theater earlier this year than on television last night, when the production was the first Off-Broadway play to be broadcast in the new WNET series, Theater Close-Up.
There was no playbill for “London Wall,” but they did flash the credits on the screen, and Sigourney Weaver, the series host, introduced the playwright, now best-known as the author of “I Remember Mama” and “I Am a Camera” (which inspired the musical Cabaret); Weaver even talked about the themes of the play (“Van Druten’s characters often use sex as currency.”) There was no intermission between the three acts of the play, only a pause of a few seconds, but (full disclosure) I did visit my refrigerator during the performance itself for a snack that was better and cheaper than those available in the lobby of the Mint Theater on 43rd Street. The play did not fit your standard TV time slot, running past two hours, but WNET rounded it out nicely by adding an interview by Theater Close-Up executive-in-charge Neal Shapiro with the Mint’s artistic director Jonathan Bank about the process of this 22-year-old theater company whose aim is to resurrect long-forgotten plays.
Taped in front of a live audience, the show had an unusually lit look that took some getting used to; the camera told us where to look, and did it in close up (which counts as both a plus and a minus); the laughter was for real, but it sounded distant and felt canned, because I was no longer a part of it, as I had been in my original viewing of this comedy.
And, oddly enough, the performances of some actors fared better than others when transferred to the small screen.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

I’m not sure what it says that Stephen Plunkett as the office cad Mr. Brewer registered nicely, with his little smirks of self-satisfaction, while Christopher Sears’ performance as the awkward young suitor Mr. Hec Hammond, Brewer’s rival for the attentions of new office worker Pat Mulligan (Elise Kibler)– which had seemed so delightfully comic on stage – struck me as too obvious on screen.
The standouts remained what they were in the theater. Jonathan Hogan is the wise and baffled boss Mr. Walker, who seems to be Van Druten’s answer to the sexist Mr. Brewer — a model of the way a man should behave in a world where women have suddenly become an integral part of the workforce. Julia Coffey is splendid as Miss Janus, who spars with Mr. Brewer. A reliable long-time employee, protective of the other workers in the law office on London Wall (an address in London), Miss Janus has been waiting a long time for her unreliable (and unseen) boyfriend to pop the question. “He hasn’t had so much reason to be keen these last three years,” she says bitterly. “He’d had all he wanted without marriage.”
The play itself started out slowly for me; it struck me as too old-fashioned, stationary, and sedate for TV; I had a sudden hankering for a car crash or two. But the concerns of the women in the office became more and more engaging. Ultimately, “London Wall” seemed to improve on re-viewing, a rare mix of romantic comedy and socially conscious drama.

Here are the remaining plays in the series, all of them on Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Channel 13 in New York. I’m not sure whether I will be offering reviews of them all. Maybe, since they’re now on TV, “recaps”?

October 9, 2014
Hellman v. McCarthy (Abingdon Theatre Company)
The greatest literary feud in modern American history began on January 25, 1980 when author Mary McCarthy appeared as a guest on “The Dick Cavett Show” and declared that “every word [playwright Lillian Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” In Brian Richard Mori’s play, Dick Cavett recreates his role in the actual events.
The Apple Family Plays: Scenes from Life in the Country (The Public Theater)
Each year since 2010, Richard Nelson premiered a new play about the fictional, liberal Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York, each one premiering on a date of national political significance.
October 16, 2014
That Hopey Changey Thing
Midterm election night 2010
October 23, 2014
Sweet and Sad
A family brunch stirs up discussions of loss, remembrance and a decade of change on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
October 30, 2014
Sorry
The Apples sort through family anxieties and confusion on the day of the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012.
November 6, 2014
Regular Singing
The final play in the cycle takes place on the 50th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
November 13
The Vandal (The Flea Theater)
The playwriting debut of actor Hamish Linklater, the play is set on a freezing night in Kingston, New York, a woman meets a boy at a bus stop.
November 20
An Iliad (New York Theatre Workshop)
Co-adapted by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, based on Homer’s Iliad translated by Robert Fagles.
November 27
Looking at Christmas (The Flea Theater)
From Steven Banks (head writer of “SpongeBob Squarepants”), the play takes place on Christmas Eve in New York City. A failed writer and a struggling actress meet while looking at the famous holiday windows and the windows come to life and look back at them.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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