|Arianne Jacques (Gregg), Stephanie Lippert (Brenda), Cassie Greer|
(Caroline), Jessi Walters (Mary Agnes), and Joey Copsey (as Mr. Shalimar)
By Tina Arth
We’ve all seen 9 to 5, Mad Men, and countless other dramedies dealing with sexism and gender inequity in the culture of American business. In 2015, can a play (even if written in 2012) based on the absurd sexual politics of the 1950s have anything meaningful to offer, other than cheap laughs and a little head scratching at how stupid everybody used to be? Surely the feminist revolution of the ‘70s fixed all that! This question is answered with a resounding “yes” in the Bag & Baggage production of Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, adapted for the stage by Julie Kramer. Bag & Baggage, already known for its consistent elevation of the status of women, has outdone itself in this profound (and hilarious) production.
The story is based on Jaffe’s bestselling 1958 book, and explores the lives of a group of young secretaries in New York City. It opens as recent Radcliffe grad Caroline is left waiting on the pier by her fiancé, Eddie, who has hitched his wagon to the daughter of a wealthy Texas oilman. Unwilling to go back home in defeat, Caroline takes a secretarial job at Fabian Publishing, where she finds herself surrounded by women whose lack of ambition and stereotypical obsession with snagging a husband at first seems to define them. As the play progresses, the women become more complex, and issues like wage gaps, sexual harassment, marital infidelity, the glass ceiling, abortion, and stalking flesh out these characters’ lives. Ultimately Caroline becomes an editor, while most of the others get the husband/family they sought – but at what price? And then there’s the death of Gregg, the aspiring actress who cannot accept rejection by David, a producer and super-cad who rivals Eddie for the title worst boyfriend/husband material on Earth.
Clearly, the comedy is not inherent in the sometimes-grim plot – but this smartly written play is loaded with ironic one-liners and absurd perspectives that are amplified by Michelle Milne’s direction and her cast’s spectacular use of timing (especially the pregnant pause). Cassie Greer’s “Caroline” is played with an admirably straight face, even when confronted with the ridiculous things she hears from her bosses, former fiancé, and co-workers. Her unflappable acceptance of the most outrageous conduct is terribly funny, but also illustrative of how commonplace this blatant behavior was in the 1950s. Andrew Beck’s alarmingly self-centered “Eddie” is evocative of Cinderella’s Prince – suave, pretentious, condescending, and utterly clueless. Joey Copsey plays the remaining four male roles, and displays a remarkable ability to shift characters at the drop of a hat (or the addition of a cravat), but he relies more on posture and delivery than costuming cues to create the weirdly sympathetic Mike, the elderly lech/boss Mr. Shalimar, the utterly despicable David, and the awkward, stuttering, naïve but sweet Ronnie. Morgan Cox manages her character’s transition from arrogant and amoral ice princess to reluctantly supportive mentor with believable subtlety, and Arianne Jacques’ portrayal of the pathetic stalker “Gregg” is both chilling and heartbreaking.
The staging, sets, and costumes combine to support both the humor and deeper themes of the story. The interchangeable desks create invisible walls, illustrating workplace class distinction and emphasizing the employer’s view that the secretaries are completely interchangeable. Hats become symbols of maleness, and ambitious women don hats as part of the uniform of success – but the hats also are used to show that it is really the men who are soulless cogs in the machine.
So why is The Best of Everything engaging and profound over a half-century after the book’s debut, and several decades after the “sexual revolution” should have made its issues passé? Take a look at the current crop of presidential candidates for a clue. And don’t miss the opportunity to see this wonderful production!
Bag & Baggage’s The Best of Everything runs through September 27th with performances Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.