Offices are where a lot of people spend the better part of their waking lives, so it’s not surprising that TV series like Mad Men and The Office have been so popular. The latter’s title alone expresses all the ennui, politics and infuriating human behavior we’ve come to expect from life in the cubicle jungle.
Long before clerical work got jazzy with inkjet printers and espresso machines, J.B. Priestley wrote a full-length play set in the smoke-filled headquarters of Briggs and Murrison, aluminum merchants. The setting is London, 1935. There’s not a hint of plastic or a Dunkin’ Donut in the whole place, the phone requires two hands to operate and “copying” a letter implies the services of a clerk with good penmanship (although a salesman does come hawking the latest in personal hygiene: paper towels). Be that as it may, Priestley’s story of hard economic times, books in the red, and the persistent demands of banks and creditors is, unfortunately, timeless.
The play is Cornelius, and it was a sleeper of the 2012 season for Off West End theaters, where it was revived for the first time since its creation some 70 years ago. When it takes that long to bring a play back, flags justifiably go up. In the case of Cornelius, nothing much happens, lots of people come and go, and there is plenty of inconsequential discussion about sandwich meats, what’s got the cleaning lady grumbling, and who will be sent out with the mail. It sounds like an office all right, but not a terribly exciting night at the theatre. Like those TV series, however, so also in Cornelius; there is a certain pleasure in watching the workplace microcosm of ambition and egos unfold.
Indeed, the main reason for the success of this show, which the Finborough Theater brings to 59E59 after its acclaimed London run, is the ensemble’s finely-grained acting, something the Brits still do better than anyone. These characters aren’t even close to being sexy, even when they’re supposed to be (in the case of Judy, the typist) “very pretty.” They hardly even raise their voices in protest while Briggs and Murisson plows straight into bankruptcy; they are imperturbable to a fault. There is, to be sure, the strange case of Mr. Murisson, who has been sent to the north country to shake down some clients and who has been in spotty communication ever since. But with each character, whether it be the lonely secretary, Miss Porrin (Pandora Collin), the taciturn accountant, Biddle (Col Farrell), or the feckless man Friday, Lawrence (David Ellis), we glean from the texture of their performances — even more so than from the script — a distinct sense of what makes each of them come to work every morning and the kind of homes they return to at night.
The story is worked through its incrementally measured paces by a mystery man, however: the show’s title character, Jim Cornelius, played by the marvelous Alan Cox. Cornelius is preternaturally optimistic and fantasizes shamelessly of exotic locales. His impeccable three-piece suits and perfectly-oiled hair provide no clues as to the dreamer who lurks within, until a book arrives one day about an expedition to a lost Inca city. Cox gives an assured performance; his Cornelius is affable, amorous and keenly aware of how his world is crumbling and what it means for the man who has let the dust settle on him a bit too long. Cliched as it sounds, he has let life pass him by.
Even from a distance of 70 years, Priestley certainly gets our contemporary office monotony and precarious economy right. Perhaps the show needed the current disillusionment of the white-collar workforce post-2008 to find its audience. Whatever the context, this production is solid on all counts: nothing fancy but spot-on. The show is part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 and a good reason, along with more offerings like Dirty Great Love Story, which won last summer’s Fringe First Award at Edinburgh, to check out this infinitesimal slice of what’s been making theatre headlines in the UK. Since we evidently share the same office; we ought to get to know each other better.