Numerous critics and commentators have observed that with the advent of TV shows such as Mad Men television has entered a second “Golden Age.” It’s appropriate that Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40 has launched its golden anniversary season with a blast from the past, harkening back to the tube’s first Golden Age. Part of what made this early period of the new medium shine so brightly was that teleplays were presented on live TV on programs such as Playhouse 90 and Kraft Theatre, which broadcast Patterns on Jan. 12 and Feb. 9, 1955 (with some different cast members).
Patterns was written for the little screen by one of television’s titans, the late great Rod Serling, who won the first of his six Emmys for this drama. This top talent was so gifted and renowned that he was one of TV and cinema’s rare writers and/or directors to become brand names for those out there in TV-land. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Serling hosted and introduced his most celebrated series, The Twilight Zone. This offbeat anthology program with sci fi and supernatural twists ran from 1959-1964 (its pilot had a Pearl Harbor theme), while the highly regarded Serling’s fantasy, horror series Night Gallery aired from 1969-1973. Serling introduced Twilight Zone episodes with these memorable words:
“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Zone.”
Other highlights include Serling’s script for Playhouse 90’s 1956 Requiem for a Heavyweight starring Jack Palance, Keenan Wynn, Ed Wynn and Kim Hunter. A 1957 version featured a young Sean Connery and Michael Caine on BBC Sunday-Night Theatre. The socially conscious, versatile Serling also wrote feature films, such as the intense 1964 drama about an attempted military coup d’etat in the USA, Seven Days in May and 1968’s Planet of the Apes, co-written by Michael Wilson, one of the blacklisted Hollywood reds.
This is a good place to return to Patterns, which – like Mad Men – is an incisive critique of corporate capitalism with a tinge of the social awareness of Proletarian Theatre. In the Theatre 40 production of James Reach’s theatrical adaptation of Serling’s original teleplay, Daniel Kaemon (who was also fine in a Group Rep Theatre version of Awake & Sing by that Depression era apostle of said Proletarian Theatre, Clifford Odets) portrays Fred Staples. This relatively young man (portrayed by Richard Kiley in 1955) has been recruited by Mr. Ramsey (Richard Hoyt Miller depicts the capitalist pig with snide panache, while Everett Sloane played the part in both 1955 telecasts) from a much smaller city and relocated to the big time in New York, where he is a rising star in the corporate suites at the Manhattan-based firm of Ramsey and Co.
Staples is confronted by ethical dilemmas that involve his older co-worker, Andy Sloane (James Schendel; Ed Begley played Sloane in both 1955 teleplays), whom Schendel portrays as a kind of Willy Loman-type character who was at the firm when old man Ramsey started it, helped build it up, but now, in his sixties, has seen better days. When Staples realizes why the bottom line, profit-driven Ramsey (the younger) hired him he must make moral decisions. His attractive young wife, Fran (Savannah Shoenecker) serves as a distraction from his scruples, trying to lure him to do what is best for his career – and hence her standard of living – even if it should haunt his conscience. As played by the alluring Shoenecker Fran is essentially a pre-feminism unemployed woman (her job, such as it is, is being Fred’s wife) using her wiles to remain in the bright lights of the big city, so the couple never has to return to Podunkville, USA.
Although they roughly depict similar eras in the Manhattan milieu of business, there are big differences between Matt Weiner’s Mad Men and Rod Serling’s Patterns. Originating in a far more repressive time with stricter censorship of TV, Patterns is sexually neutered in comparison to the hanky-panky of Don Draper and company. Produced 60 years ago, Patterns presumably couldn’t sexplore the sexual frisson between the nubile Fran and her husband’s boss or between the secretaries and the executives.
So, for 2015 audiences, Patterns may feel dated and the production, directed by the award-winning Jules Aaron, is a bit stagey. Jeff Rack’s set design, however, is a bit unusual in that it seems to have a two-tiered structure that reflects the drama’s underlying class struggle. Michele Young’s costumes evoke the period dress and there’s some good music and sound effects conjured up by sound designer Joseph Slawinski.
While Serling critiqued capitalism, as the denouement of Patterns reveals, it was not a revolutionary drama a la Bertolt Brecht. But it is still well-acted and, but of course, well-written, and an enjoyable vehicle for aficionados of solid theatre. Overall, the 60 year old Patterns is an appropriate choice for Theatre 40 to kick off its Golden Anniversary season. This is a worthy venue which last season presented plays such as Hellman V. McCarthy, co-starring Dick Cavett as himself.
Now, here are the fun facts of the day: Before their hit TV sitcoms Bewitched and Maude, Elizabeth Montgomery and Bea Arthur appeared in 1955 versions of Patterns and Richard Kiley went on to win a Tony for Man of La Mancha. Happy 60th birthday Theatre 40!