The Desk Set
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 10, 2010
If you know The Desk Set at all, it's probably as one of the Tracy & Hepburn films (the movie's title has no article, it's just Desk Set): she's the brainy head of the reference department for a television network and he's the arrogant efficiency expert who is going to computerize her section and put her and her staff out of work. But before Hollywood grabbed it, The Desk Set was a hit Broadway comedy, back in 1955, starring Shirley Booth in a role that was tailor-made for her particular talents. Retro Productions is currently presenting a revival of this play by William Marchant, and the production is great fun indeed.
The play itself is something of an artifact of a time that seems very long ago. The smart lady boss with all the answers, Bunny Watson, spends way more time managing her romance with her boss, Abe Cutler, than managing the department (she makes her entrance in both Act I and II carrying parcels, having just been shopping). The three women who work for Bunny (the "girls") are in the man-hungry Rose Marie-on-Hollywood Squares mold. The men who are their superiors—Abe and Richard, the efficiency expert—are generally patronizing toward them. And the electronic brain that Richard eventually installs to answer all the reference queries currently fielded by Bunny and her staff is a whirring, buzzing joke of a monolith that Marchant at once makes more and less powerful than any current PC. It's quaint, and quite telling about how things in our world have changed in just five decades.
But it's still, as I said, fun. The dialogue is sharp and witty in the best screwball comedy tradition, and the characters have enough depth to make us care about them; Bunny in particular is a leading lady to root for. Marchant's craft is top-notch and the play proceeds briskly and engagingly. And to their enormous credit, the folks at Retro never once wink at it, instead letting it stand on its own as an exemplar of a kind of Broadway comedy that no longer exists but nevertheless has enough artfulness and good-heartedness to make it worth taking a look at.
Director Tim Errickson's work shines, especially in terms of pacing, and the overall physical production ranks with indie theater's very best: there's a detailed set by Rebecca Cunningham that evokes the '50s-era corporate office expertly, even within the snug quarters of the Spoon Theater; Viviane Galloway's costumes are attractive and completely appropriate to time and place; lighting and sound, by Justin Sturges and Jeanne Travis respectively, are seamless and invaluable; and Sturges's computer for Act III is a delightful contraption that perfectly depicts what a light-hearted yet sober designer would have imagined a futuristic high-tech computer would look and behave like 50-some years ago.
The ensemble of ten is anchored by the excellent Kristen Vaughan as Bunny, who gets the sophistication and occasional underlying sadness of the heroine just right: she's completely convincing as a brilliant gal with a heart of gold who somehow so far has failed to reel in her man. Offering terrific support are Heather E. Cunningham (who is Retro's producing artistic director), Aubrie Therrien, and Alisha Speilmann as Bunny's staff—like Vaughan, they get the period and style of the play and never comment on it. (And Cunningham is especially good with the dry, throwaway lines that she's called upon to deliver as the senior staffer, Peg Costello.)
Ric Sechrest is fine in the small but pivotal role of Abe, who is and remains Bunny's love interest (unlike in the film). Douglas B. Giorgis is very good as Kenny, the mailroom guy. Matthew Trumbull, who is one of my favorite indie actors, seems less at ease than usual as the efficiency expert Richard Sumner, though. Matilda Szydagis plays two very different women, the office sexpot and a computer wiz; and Stuart Green completes the company in two minor roles.
This is not a production that is going to change your life or anything, but it makes for a charming and diverting evening, one that offers a bit of nostalgia in a bright and pleasing package. The Desk Set is extremely well produced by Retro Productions, and marks another feather in the cap of this young but already acclaimed troupe.