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Desk Set: Back Then, The Future Was Now

by Karen Tortora-Lee on May 21, 2010

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Desk Set Postcard

We’re going to start this review off with a quiz to illustrate a point.  What’s the title of the poem that begins “By The Shores Of Gitche Gumee?” Go ahead, I’ll wait while you find out for me.

Back so soon?  And your answer?  That’s right.  “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  And just about how long did it take you to find out the answer?  Well, if you were like me you typed the title into Google, hit “search” and in .29 seconds (that’s literally the blink of an eye) not one, not two but 27,800 results were at your finger tips.  You could have the text of the poem itself, the Wikipedia entry that gives the history of the poem, the 1996 novel by Tama Janowitz, a link to where you can buy the Janowitz book if you wanted to, or some videos from YouTube.

What in the world did we we do before Google?  Easy.  Before Google there were Gals . . . or more precisely there was The Desk Set: Bunny Watson, head librarian of the reference department at the International Broadcasting Company, and her team of librarians.  These gals were equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from batting averages to the names of Santa’s reindeer.  And they’d give it to you in . . . well . . . the blink of an eye.

Kristen Vaughan (Bunny Watson)

Kristen Vaughan (Bunny Watson)

Like all the plays put on by Retro Productions, The Desk Set (written by William Marchant and directed by Tim Errickson) has solid roots in the past.  While the more famous incarnation may be the movie with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, this production stays true to the original which does not come off as a Hepburn/Tracy vehicle centering on their taut love connection.  Rather, this play focuses more on the story of a bustling research department whose staff uses their wits, copious amounts of library books, and their winning personalities to field whatever questions are tossed at them during the course of their fast and furious workday.  They do it with a smile that makes it all seem easy.

The department is run by Bunny (Kristen Vaughan) whose superior intelligence and gentle zingers keep the wheels of the department turning year after year, one frantic day after another. Under her is the wise-cracking Peg Costello (Heather E. Cunningham) who breezily triumphs over the most difficult of brain twisters with a sly wink and an arched brow.  Ruthie Saylor (Alisha Spielmann) and Sadel Meyer (Aubrie Therrien) round out the desk set; as devoted to their leader as they are to setting the record straight and producing the correct answer no matter how much research it takes.

Heather E. Cunningham (Peg Costello)

Heather E. Cunningham (Peg Costello)

Enter Richard Sumner (Matthew Trumbull),  a “methods engineer” and nephew of the big boss of the company.  He just recently installed a new “mechanical brain” in the accounting department saving the company time and thus money,  forcing the old-timers to accept the inevitable march of progress.  Mr. Sumner is now assigned to assess the possibility of installing a second mechanical brain in the research department. It’s a possibility that leaves the desk set rattled and defensive.

Kristen Vaughan’s Bunny is full of intelligence and fire.  She masters the difficult dialogue with style and ease, completely convincing you that she loves this job and would give her life for it.  Heather Cunningham does a number on the character of Peg – expanding her from a one-note good time gal into someone who runs deeper and truer.  Peg is brassy and bold, but Cunningham will every so slightly allow her vulnerability to peek through, and it’s at that moment when you fall in love with her.  Alisha Spielmann’s Ruthie is the new girl around the office, whose excitement about learning all there is to being a great researcher like Bunny is doused by the possibility of being downsized by Sumner’s machine.  Spielmann gives Ruthie that innocence we all had at our first job, that “I’ll do anything” spirit, that youthful earnestness that we all may remember, and she does so without making Ruthie a pushover or childish.   Matthew Trumbull as Mr. Sumner epitmizes the techy who comes into a new office wanting to “help everyone” but really wanting to “change everything” and naively believes there are not going to be any hard feelings as he does so.  Bunny’s long time non-fiance Abe Cuttler (Ric Sechrest) does a great job at portraying the typical 50′s old boys network – he’s part of that middle manager club who slowly makes his way up the ladder by trying to create Progress without actually progressing the company forward at all.

Matthew Trumbull (Richard Sumner)

Matthew Trumbull (Richard Sumner)

The set (designed byJack and Rebecca Cunningham) is amazing, right down to the letter (or, should I say, the letter opener).  With props designed by Heather Cunningham and Casandera M. J. Lollar the ambiance is almost like another character of the play.  The texture of the wood and the old fashioned (though cutting edge at the time) office implements  take us back to the energetic time when  the future was screaming toward us like a Boeing 707.  The beauty of this play is that it captures the excitement of all the technological changes of the times, but in such a retro way that this progressive play of the 50′s becomes a thrilling example of Steam Punk.  And unlike Paul Bunyan’s or John Henry’s tragic tale of legends of past ages succumbing  to the inevitable tide of progress, the tone of The Desk Set has the flavor of a romantic comedy and therefore is able to be a more thoughtful story of how The Future can learn from The Past.  And, giggle all you want at the Mechanical Brain, but we’re finding these jumps of progress happening ever faster as Twitter and  smartphones now make our world of just 10 years ago look old fashioned.  We can take away a lot from this time capsule of a play as we all learn to adapt to the changes in the world around us.

So come and see what you can learn about your future by taking a vivd and exciting glimpse at the past  and The Desk Set.

Retro Productions Presents
** CLOSING SOON! May 22, 2010 **
Spoon Theater
38 West 38th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10018
Tickets: $18 (Seniors over 65 and Students with valid ID: $15)
For Group Discounts, email inquiries to
Click Here To Buy Tickets
Box Office opens 30 minutes prior to performance. There is no late seating for this performance.
Fri, May 21 – Sat, May 22 8:00 PM
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