Playwright: John Van Druten. At: Griffin Theatre Company at the Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 866-811-4111; www.griffintheatre.com; $36. Runs through: Feb. 14
The entrance of women into the clerical workforce properly dates to 1868 ( when the first Remington typewriters featured casings decorated with flowers ), but the shortage of men following World War One precipitated increased numbers of females hired to fill the vacancies. Victorian attitudes still lingered, howeveramong them, perception of the "office girls" as analogous to household servants. Presumed to reside with family members, and thus, not reliant on wages for their livelihood, they could be grossly underpaid. Furthermore, they were assumed to be searching for husbandsa sexualized view rendering them vulnerable to harassment by their male co-workers.
The typists who labor for Attorneys Walker, Windermere & Co. in 1931 illustrate these conditions. Miss Janus has been with the London firm for ten years while waiting for her fiance to set a wedding date. Miss Hooper boasts seven years on the job, along with a married beau promising to divorce his wife. Newer arrivals are Miss Bufton, whose bottle-blonde savvy guarantees her an abundance of young bucks eager to share her off-duty hoursup to a pointand 19-year-old county-bred Miss Milligan, pursued by the shy clerk from downstairs ( who invades Walker Windermere's law library at every pretext for a look at his beloved ) and stalked by a skirt-chasing junior leegsbeegs.
This assortment of personalities and backstories anticipate a sentimental romantic comedy, but gradually John Van Druten's astute and nonjudgmental observation of his society, as orchestrated by Griffin Theatre director Robin Witt, combines with our own hindsight to highlight almost-infinitesimal chronological hallmarks: the necessity of a male voiceeven one with an east-end accentanswering the telephones, for example, or the wide social chasm separating privileged professionals from support-staff underlings who struggle on their meager salaries. "My father retired the day we engaged our first woman typist" sighs "Lord" Walker as he patiently negotiates the new corporate landscape. Also offering commentary on the slow progress of gender equity is an elderly spinster client whom we initially dismiss as comic relief, but proves to be wiser and more generous than her contemporaries.
Even without two intermissions, three acts of low-key intrigue among commonersthis is no Downton Abbeyrequire more than mere quaint-and-cozy to sustain our interest. Fortunately, our production features an ensemble of detail-sensitive actors that articulates Kendra Thulin's dialects to the last vowel, attired in Rachel M. Sypniewski's museum-accurate wardrobe, while demonstrating a familiar dexterity with Jeff Kmiec's and Lee Moore's comfortably timeworn furnishings. The results make it a pity that Van Druten didn't write a sequel!