What if you had worked for a highly established company for 24 years only to be nearly bullied out of your job rather than fired, due to implied tenure, in part because your biggest crime was that you thought “of employees in terms of the human factor, not just logistically.” Take that, and add an additional layer of belated competition with the hiring of someone equally qualified and 20-plus-years your junior who may or may not be in the process of getting groomed for your job. To top it all off, they are dubbed a “prodigy”. To add injury to insult you are suffering some serious health problems. To add confusion to insult, you happen to get along quite well with your potential replacement. To add difficulty to an alternate job search, you are deprived of the Internet. Why? Because this is 1955 and LinkedIn has not yet been invented. So is the tenor of Theatre 40’s latest production of Patterns by James Reach, based on the teleplay by Rod Serling.
It is a typical, fluorescently lit night at Beverly Hills High School, home of the illustrious Theatre 40. The floors are perpetually shiny, bathroom stalls still teeny but forever adorned with profanities. The trophy case continually filled with all manner of laudable notifications up to and including photos of each and every actor in the western hemisphere who’s any actor in the western hemisphere (about 13 of them) involved in this play. But there is a little extra pomp and circumstance on this particular evening: “Welcome to Theatre 40’s 50th Anniversary,” David Hunt Stafford, the company’s artistic director and also tonight’s Mr. Gordon intones. “The cigarettes onstage are non-toxic vapor,” he concludes. Yet this disclaimer still will not prevent the adorable elderly couple behind me from uttering, “Oh he’s smoking. She’s smoking!” every time one of our beloved characters “lights up” onstage. (Nor will it halt my emboldened two-seats-down neighbor from informing them at the end of the evening, “You know, it was really annoying the way you called out people smoking every time one did it on stage.”—And they said the only drama took place on set!)
Jazz reminiscent of the Brubeck era sounds the theatre over as the lights dim on the venerable set evocative of green marble, and banking sensibilities, though “Ramsey & Co.” is an office which handles plants. No, no not those of the green variety (which might parallel the verdant surroundings of the portrayed environs of the workplace). But no—that of the factorial category yielding copious amounts of green of the other kind…
The play opens with the anticipation of the arrival of a young Fred Staples. (The last name is not lost on any of us—okay well perhaps I shouldn’t speak for the entire audience—but with a name like Staples, it is truly evident that any sort of office setting is exactly where he belongs, not only that, evocative of stapling and/or nailing things down as he surely will the anticipated promotion. Yet oddly enough, no staplers are readily utilized within the context of the drama, even such a similarly named instrument shall not upstage Staples. Or would that be upSTAPLE him? A hahahaha!) Irrespective of all this, he is young. He is handsome. He is enterprising – a “prodigy” as a matter of fact as the idle and preemptive banter describes him.
“I’ll be working here until my dreamboat sails into view,” Ann, the youngest blondest secretary heaves forth in a sigh.
“My prediction is for choppy seas,” quips Martha Stevens, the second youngest, yet wiser receptionist, and really as apt a response as any as Mr. Staples is well…married.
Nevertheless it is a most auspicious beginning, until we all make the acquaintance of Andy Sloane, the sympathetic, weary, and earnest employee Staples is ostensibly being groomed to eclipse. “My wife passed away about 2 years ago,” he will inform staples nearly in the same breath as he mentions working at Ramsey and Co for “24 glorious years.” But all is not completely wondrous in the working world. Upon first arrival Mr. Ramsey calls a meeting and makes sure to humiliate Sloane in front of the entire team for his sound and humanitarian ideas. (Oh the horror inherent in compassion!)
From this very point on the tussle between Staples’ conscience and professional tenacity commence. Will he proceed as a shark or an agreeable understated teddy bear as he assists Sloane in providing direction after drunken, depressive benders long after the office has emptied, along with attempting, to greater or lesser degrees, to stand up for Sloane and give him much due credit on reports (but sometimes not as emphatically as he could—at least not if his wife has any say in it) to speak nothing of Sloane’s teenage son Paul, providing sound counsel.
“What kind of outfit is this?” Paul will vulnerably inquire on the brink of tears, having arrived late one night at the workplace in searchof his father. “What’s going on here? …Has something gone haywire?” Yes, just as man had come to be dubbed a “cog in a wheel” pertaining to his “nine to five” and long before earth had been dubbed a “Prison Planet”, prior to Morpheus instructing Neo that humans were nothing more than slaves born into bondage, from the mouths of babes the ephemeral futility of the life/birth/death cycle rendering itself “nothing personal, just business” has been recognized by the most youthful, wide-eyed, emergent bread winner in our story!
From here on out the play waxes even more intense as Sloane admits to having heart disease and Staples, though consistent in his perceived support of Sloane grows more conflicted regarding his desire to do right and follow in Sloane’s humane footsteps vs. seizing the brass ring—though not too terribly unethically. Staples’ quest for greatness remains civilized and sound to the bitter end.
Though exceedingly linear in nature, this play is exceptionally well-paced pertaining to the drama inherent within, highly reminiscent of an Arthur Miller play but minus the enviously overbearing relative, (unless you count Staples’ wife who might have done quite well as a glass ceiling buster herself). Otherwise the piece is the perfect-ten-years-prior precursor to the Mad Men era before the business world got even madder and quite an apt representation of the working world and its capricious gestalt. At times however it was nearly too undeviating for my taste and the ending was more or less predictable. I kept expecting, or perhaps hoping, something unforeseen might have occurred, that Staples, who even looked just a trifle bit like Don Draper, may have cheated with the comely Miss Hill as he ushered her out of his office pertaining to an assignment–a scene which was otherwise immaterial to the script as it did nothing to further the plot. Hence an additional concern with the story: Economy in writing.
In all circumspection however it was based on a teleplay by Rod Serling and as we well comprehend, Teleplays account for all manner of extras, up to and including those of the human variety as atmospheric background and an occasional additional “slice of life” scene to account for the superfluous character or appreciative day player/up and comer in search of a SAG card. Concerning Serling’s sentiment pertaining to American Capitalism in all its glory, it is interesting to note that he felt compelled to clarify that he was not a communist at its unveiling and was merely chronicling a pattern inherent in any organizational structure, an office just happened to be the chosen setting. Had he lived to see today, the worst he would have been accused of would be that of an anti-corporatist (the one and only political platform on which our nation currently subsists). Really, no shame in that from where this writer is sitting.
As to the production itself, its overall value was simply fabulous! The illustrious set by Jeff G. Rack is nearly worth the price of admission alone. Costume design by Michele Young takes us aptly back to the day; Mrs. Staples’ look in particular (as the adorable elderly couple behind me will say to themselves and the entire audience in kind as soon as Staples’ wife alights the stage, “Oh she looks like Jackie Kennedy!”)
Richard Hoyt Miller as the imposing and unethical Mr. Ramsey is both bulldoggish and menacing but with a hint of humanity adorning his edges. Daniel Kaemon as the Don Draperesque (but only in looks) Fred Staples is both earnest and likeable, even in those subtle moments when perhaps we might hedge at questioning his affability. James Schendel as the sympathetic and sincere Andy Sloane makes you just wanna howl like a dog in empathy, and his son Paul as portrayed by a refreshingly vulnerable Louis Schneider makes you want to follow suit but this time as a cat a-caterwaulin’ (because someone took the dog’s bone apparently!) Elain Rinehart and Sharron Shayne as the venerable and longstanding secretaries Margaret Lanier and Marge Flemings respectively wax so mid-century-authentic it is hardly even necessary to imagine the office is a set, but incumbent upon their presence–more like a portal through time. Oho would Rod Serling be proud!
David Hunt Stafford as Mr. Gordon (also the guy from the beginning who made the speech about the non-toxic cigarette smoke along with the theatre’s Artistic/Managing Director played an annoying “yes man” with utmost authenticity! Cathy Diane Tomlin as steadfast receptionist Martha Stevens, though all the way back in a somewhat more difficult-to-see corner (from this reviewer’s vantage point) was a sound and honest official helmswoman (and someone you might thoroughly imagine befriending swiftly and easily). Mrs. Fran Staples (on the other hand)—well she was comparatively just kind of a creep, but an endearing, elegant and fashionable creep who moved the plot along quite aptly. As a more or less unexpected potential villain, she was played boldly and even somewhat sympathetically by a dashing Savannah Schoenecker!
Theatre 40’s Patterns runs Thursday through Sunday until August 23rd 2015. (For any other year, feel free to contact Rod Serling.)