By BRETT CAMPBELL AND MARIA CHOBAN
Bag & Baggage Productions has trumpeted its new production of The Best of Everything as a triumph of female theater: a play adapted by a woman (Julie Kramer) from a novel by a woman (Rona Jaffe’s 1958 book by the same title), directed by a woman (Michelle Milne), mostly designed by women (costumes: Melissa Heller, scenic: Megan Wilkerson, lighting: Molly Stowe) and starring mostly women.
With all that estrogen involved, and the source material’s proto-feminist take on the sexist ‘50s American office culture, you’d expect this new production (the first on the West Coast) to explode the stereotypes of women that the novel and play strive so hard to puncture. But it actually succeeds mostly in one major respect that’s not the one the play intends.
Certainly everyone had feminist intentions. The author of 16 books (one titled Mr. Right is Dead), Brooklyn-born Jaffe founded an organization to promote women writers, and, decades before Mad Men, BoE, along with other seminal — make that ovular — books of the era like The Feminine Mystique, published five years later, won notoriety for its scathing portrait of a sexist society’s effect on the women it repressed. Jaffe’s book traced several characters in a New York publishing firm similar to the one she worked in herself when she wrote the novel.
The play, which premiered in 2012, presents characters representative of the era’s various female stereotypes — the naive Midwesterner shamed for her normal sex drive (spunkily played by Kaia Hillier in one of the show’s best performances); the driven, career-oriented Radcliffe grad (the central character, portrayed by B&B resident actor Cassie Greer) who embodies the coming second wave feminist generation; the icy, bitchy executive (Morgan Cox’s Amanda Farrow) who has to repress her humanity and femininity to claw her way near (but never all the way to) the top in an aggressive man’s world; the superficially sexually adventurous Gregg Adams (played by B&B resident actor Arianne Jacques) who secretly longs for a traditional marriage; the prudish repressed virgin Mary Agnes Russo (hilariously played by B&B resident actor Jessi Walters) who derides women who actually acknowledge the natural sexual appetites that she herself appears afraid to unleash. In her program note for this West Coast premiere, director Milne promises that the arc of the play will show the reality of the women busting out of those cultural stereotypes.
Kramer’s adaptation introduces us to this world, which seems so far away in some respects (though in fact much sexism remains in the workplace) via the arrival of the publishing firm’s “new girl” — and yes, that’s what they’d call Caroline Bender, despite the fact that we learn she’s a woman — 21 year old Radcliffe grad. As she’s shown the ropes by her bitchy boss and her fellow typing pool peons, the audience learns about this alien world (despite being in living memory of some older audience members) where women’s roles are strictly defined as second rung at best, where casual sexual harassment (as we’d now call it) is the norm, a women’s world where most intimate secrets about virginity, pregnancy, heartbreak and more are shared by the oppressed secretaries. Caroline wants to rise above that lowly station and become an editor like her boss, Amanda Farrow.
Peppered with sly humor deriving from the contrast between their naive, dated attitudes and the 21st century audience’s rueful understanding of how tragi-comically unfair the mid-’50 were to many women, Milne cleverly plays these introductory sequences for more laughs than the script actually includes. And it gets them, thanks to the cast’s superb chemistry and physical and vocal expressiveness, which simultaneously conveys mid 20th century innocence and ironic 2015 knowingness. Smart production touches like a sound design that emphasizes old fashioned typewriter noises (for those of us who still remember them) and identical ‘50s office garb for the secretaries also suggest Jaffe’s late-’50s atmosphere.
In the play’s early ensemble sequences, the audience really responded to B&B’s hallmark crisp timing and subtle physical exaggerations, especially Hillier and Walters. At least one casting choice backfired: Cassie Greer’s deep clear voiced portrayal of the new girl, Caroline, shouldn’t have out-asserted (at the outset at least) the higher pitched, tentative delivery of Caroline’s older boss played by Morgan Cox. She wasn’t bitchy enough. Her first line when scoping out the secretaries for her next slave after the last one walked out on her — “Which one is mine?” — should make us shudder with thrilling trepidation (or maybe glee) at this repressed dominatrix.
Milne tries to inject some action, or at least motion, into the gossipy byplay by having the women (dressed identically in pink dresses, white scarves, ivory pumps) switch places at identical tables to suggest their interchangeability as capitalist tools. It’s a nice twist on the script’s direction to use identical cardboard cut-out two-dimensional men for a dance sequence during a Christmas office party; in this production they substitute men’s hats. The men in this culture were interchangeable, too, as evidenced by Joey Copsey’s effective portrayals of four different minor characters. In the other male role, Andrew Beck contributes an affecting turn as a jaded editor.
But after a promising opening, once the play has established the characters and their world, Milne’s detached direction undermines the characters’ evolution from stereotypes to the fully fleshed out humans portrayed in Kramer’s script. Although some of her physical comic touches, like having the women mime typing in regimented lines, drew deserved laughs, Milne’s cliched dream ballet style interludes fail to convey metaphorically anything more than what we’ve already learned literally. When BoE’s interchangeable office girls moved desks around interchangeably, the device quickly grew tiresome. At no point did those sequences evoke sympathy for the interchangeable girls. And they slowed the snappy action that’s the script’s strongest asset.
“This play works best when performed with…a slightly heightened manner, quick cue pick-up,” writes adapter Julie Kramer in her author’s note to The Best of Everything. Instead, Milne gives us props swinging to and fro, and interrupts the “quick cue pick-up” with yet another table tossing ballet.
Conceptual devices cannot replace the hard work of depicting our own vulnerable selves through acting and direction that makes the audience identify with the characters. Despite the actors’ best efforts in ensemble scenes, their flat monologues prevent them from transcending the stereotypes that the story wants to flesh out. And that keeps the audience from connecting with them as they dutifully trace their dramatic arcs, most pretty much defined by the men in and out of their lives. Even when a couple of the women succeed in determining their own destinies, it’s hard to care much because they never seem real.
Concept vs. Connection
What could Milne have done to bring these stereotypes (who read richer in Kramer’s script than they seem on stage here) to life? Seeing this show in B&B’s home, Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, suggests one answer. The company’s director, Scott Palmer (who chose both the play and the director for this season opening slot) pulled it off in last year’s production of The Crucible when he took a script full of caricatures parodying do-gooders yet immediately grabbed us with create-and-paste opening sequence (an homage to The Blair Witch Project), and kept us in gotta-leave-NOW! screaming terror at the end with a cast that included high schoolers in key roles.
Palmer is vulnerable, aggressively connecting without being obnoxious (“I love all of you but I love you season ticket holders just a little bit more”), greeting his community’s theatergoers personally in the lobby as they enter and leave every B&B show, whether he directs it or not. That same sense of empathy comes through in his direction of B&B’s actors, who flesh out their characters with slight (and sometimes not so slight) theatrical exaggerations, facial and physical — exactly the “slightly heightened” approach playwright Kramer wanted — exemplified here by Walters’s Mary Agnes, who’s as sincerely funny as her pot-hazed Launce in B&B’s recent Six Gentlepersons of Verona. Repeated memorable yet very different characterizations from the same actors suggest that an actor’s director helps create that chemistry, a notion corroborated by Hillier’s recent blog post on yet another B&B play she was involved in: “But as I realized, and which was also enforced by Scott’s numerous notes about commitment to actions and thought, if I’m not truly invested in what I’m doing as my character, I am not doing my job as an actor and the audience will be ripped off too.”
Palmer’s ghost haunted the show in his house players’ ability to riff off of each other in ensemble sequences; a brief trio scene in an elevator that relies entirely on the actors’ vocal and facial expressions (including a third wheel brilliantly added by Milne) alone makes the show worth seeing. But too often in this production, Milne is to Palmer what Tommy Smothers is to Eddie Izzard. Palmer’s productions imbue every scene with a clear (though not always singular) emotional content, not just advancing the plot, even when those feelings are unpredictable and complex. But when the action moves from comic to something darker, Milne often fails to provide clear emotional cues for each scene, muddling the emotional impact and sapping dramatic momentum.
Women are supposed to be the stereotypical nurturers and connectors, while the culture often stereotypes men as more interested in big ideas than relationships. Yet here, it’s Milne who — contradicting the stereotype of the emotionally connecting female — relies so much on conceptual devices that she fails to make us relate to the women on stage in the way that Palmer — who devotes so much effort to connecting with and nurturing his community — does so often in the many B&B plays he directs. Palmer might have walked Greer/Caroline through the heartache of a cad boyfriend leading her on yet again (with copious notes), much as he made Peter Schuyler’s John Proctor a flawed adulterous human the audience felt anguished about. (Although it’s important to both company and community for B&B to enlist guest directors, in future, Palmer might solicit his guest director’s thoughts when choosing a play so that they have input regarding their directorial strengths and weaknesses.)
Ironically, this production needed more of Palmer’s stereotypically “female” attention to connection and less of Milne’s “male” intellectualism — which goes to show that those stereotypes, like the ones that oppressed the women in 1950s New York office culture, fail to acknowledge the depth and richness of real humans, male or female. Anyone who’s seen Palmer’s own B&B productions knows he’s no stranger to big concepts, and yet his productions usually connect emotionally. He’s a living counterargument to gender stereotypes, and a production that possessed his embrace of qualities stereotypically associated with both genders might have really given us the best of everything.
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