Topnotch lead performances and a “plus ça change” fascination make James Reach’s Patterns, the stage adaptation of a Rod Serling screenplay set in the dog-eat-dog world of 1950s American big business, worth a look-see at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40 despite an overlong running time and a so-so supporting cast.
Serling’s 1956 screenplay was itself based on an earlier version of Patterns, a 1955 episode of the hour-long Kraft Television Theatre, and though Serling himself added a half-hour or so of new or extended scenes to his 83-minute movie adaptation, Reach sees fit to tack on yet another thirty minutes, or at least that’s how long (accent on long) Patterns takes to reach its drawn-out climax at Theatre 40 under Jules Aaron’s direction.
All three Patterns center on a handsome Ohio hotshot summoned to New York to assume a high-level position at a major firm only to suspect his new boss of ulterior motives in having him work side-by-side with a 60something VP whose bleeding-heart attitudes run counter to the company’s cutthroat tactics. That the vice president in question has (rather ironically) a bleeding ulcer and bad heart makes him even less likely to remain in his current position by final fadeout.
Ramsey & Co.’s fancy Manhattan digs may feature typewriters instead of computers, old-fashioned dial phones on desks, and no such thing as the Internet (the Interwhat?), but its CEO’s undercover machinations and the company’s office gossip machine still resonate six decades after Patterns made its stage debut.
Less contemporary is the play’s ensemble of thirteen, positively humungous compared to today’s casts of two, three, or four, though Patterns’ trio of junior executives (Todd Andrew Ball as Mr. Jameson, understudy Richard Carner as Mr Gordon, and John Schroeder as Mr. Smith) and its three minor secretaries (Erica Larson as Ann Evans, Aygul Maksutova as Lenore Hill, and Cathy Diane Tomlin as Martha Stevens) serve mostly as window dressing making this that rare Golden Era play that would actually work better in a reduced-cast, ninety-minute, no-intermission format. (Elain Rinehart’s Margaret Lanier gets considerably more stage time than the abovementioned sextet, and she is mostly quite effective in the role of ice-queen office manager.)
A couple of supporting roles offer more meat, but age-blind casting proves distracting. Sharron Shayne makes for an appropriately acerbic Marge Fleming, but the role (written for an actress in her thirties) seems less credible post-retirement age, especially for a play set in the 1950s.
As for the infirm VP’s teenage son Paul, though the sexagenarian’s younger boy’s age has been raised from the script’s fourteen to sixteen, actor Louis Schneider reads mid-twenties, which makes the kid’s “Gee whiz!” ‘50s teen slang sound awkward at best.
Playwright Reach may have chosen to pad what worked quite well in the movie’s eighty-three minutes under the asumption that 1950s theatergoers would not stand for a intermissionless play. Whatever the case, the added pages are not helped by languorous pacing in a vehicle that ought to move forward lickety-split and doesn’t.
Luckily, dramatic fireworks ignite whenever various combinations of Patterns’ four leads share the Theatre 40 stage, which fortunately is more often than not.
As Fred Staples, Daniel Kaemon not only gives the Ramsey & Company newbie George Clooney good looks, he has stage presence and acting chops to match. A very good James Schendel avoids making ailing Andy Sloane too pathetic a figure, letting us glimpse bits of the powerhouse his teenage son still recalls. A stunning Savannah Schoenecker appears at first to be nothing more than Fred’s Jackie Kennedy-lookalike Stepford Wife until Reach’s script allows her to reveal Fran Staples’ unexpectedly rich shadings. Best of all is Richard Hoyt Miller, whose dynamic, hard-as-nails performance as Mr. Ramsey displays a razor-sharp precision that, were the entire cast on the same page, would elevate Patterns above its current “just okay.”
Worth unqualified raves is scenic designer Jeff G. Rack’s wonder of a two-level set, one which manages to fit the four “units” specified in Reach’s script (several offices and secretarial quarters) onto a single stage, eliminating any need for time-consuming scene changes, with additional kudos due the production’s multiple period props, Ric Zimmerman’s as always striking lighting design, and Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s mood-enhancing sound design. Michèle Young once again reveals her top-drawer costume design talents in creating one 1950s gem of an outfit after another, with wig mistress Judi Lewin’s confections equally attentive to period detail.
Don Solosian is stage manager. Carner is assistant stage manager. Kori Beth Kaye is assistant director. Patterns is produced by David Hunt Stafford.
Theatre 40 has always had a special knack for three-act artifacts of a bygone age, most recently a superb Flare Path, and a couple years before that an impeccably staged pair of Agatha Christies—Spider’s Web and Black Coffee.
Patterns is not in their league, though with swifter pacing and other assorted tweaks, it could have been.
Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.
August 13, 2015
Photos: Ed Krieger