The Desk Set

For about a year and a half in high school, I was a “punk”. I had a multi-colored mohawk, wore eyeliner and lipstick, shredded shirts, wrote on my clothes, the whole thing. Obviously, this was a phase, and my mother dutifully rolled her eyes at most of my shenanigans, but, to my credit, it only took me that year and a half to understand that by disregarding social norms, I was also embracing a different set of social norms. The other punks at my school were in the same uniform I was in.

When I went to see The Desk Set, there were some things I was expecting, because I know who this company is. I was expecting incredible sets, with details down to the drawer pulls. I was expecting articulated costumes, with period perfection down to the jewelry. And I was expecting powerful performances in drenched period styles.

Everything I had seen from Retro in the past prepared me for the possible psychological damage I would encounter at the hands of the brilliant support team they’ve built around themselves. Incredibly, instead, I just laughed all the way through it. They have proven they can handle turgid, taught drama, with stakes as high as murder at the hands of a madman and the killing of a child by an angry God, so for them to pull back and use their incredible skills to create a light office comedy – it’s actually an incredibly brave move.

They could continue to create dark and complicated period pieces, but by choosing to do a comedy… they’re actually taking a huge risk. It could seem to be trying to please a larger audience, but the truth is that they have shown they can do one thing very well. Even if it’s more difficult to do, it’s actually an act of bravery to create something lighter and more fun. Comedy is very difficult and the punk still left in me was really excited to see these guys rebel against themselves.

(I have to say that I have worked with three of the leads very closely, and I’m good friends with the producers and the director, but I ALSO want to point out that these friendships are based on mutual artistic respect. The first Retro show I saw, I didn’t know anyone but the director, these relationships have grown because of the theater and because of this blog. This is why “full disclosure” doesn’t always work, our relationships as friends have grown out of our artistic admiration, we haven’t created artistic admiration because of personal fondness. Also, I paid for my ticket. Two, in fact.)

Matthew Trumbull and Kristin Vaughan in The Desk Set

Matthew Trumbull is marvelous, and Kristin Vaughan is as good as I’ve ever seen her. I marvel at how lucky we are to have actors of this much aptitude and art gracing our humble stages, I feel like both Matthew and Kristin ought to have, long ago, given up our ghettos for more celebrated houses. It’s actually a real testimony to Tim Errickson as a director that so many of the actors are so pitch perfect in this production. Ric Seacrest was phenomenal. As a dutiful mamma’s boy, and a suitor too innocent to see his opportunities, Ric’s open face and purity was perfect. Had the actor played this role with any darkness, he would have come across as taking advantage, as almost abusive. The entire ensemble dovetailed into the production effortlessly, but the most astonishing transformation was done by Heather Cunningham.

I’ve been following Heather’s work over the last few years, and had you told me, before I saw the show, what her role was, I wouldn’t have believed you. Heather has played the innocent and the ravaged, and has always plumbed the depths of her own shock and misery in such a way that my heart was just shattering during each of their last few plays. A woman, alone at a table, eating a donut… you wouldn’t think it could move me to tears, but it did.

So, suddenly, she’s the femme fatale? Suddenly, she’s the man eater, as devilishly flirtatious and sexually powerful as Mad Men’s Joan. This is not a role that many theater companies would consider Heather for, and yet she knocks it out of the park. Again, props have to go to Tim for committing to such a brave and damn smart casting decision. Tim also wrestles constant action and motion out of what is actually a very, very small playing space. One gets the sense of a constant storm of questions and demands are flying into this giant company, and our characters are pushing the information from one side of the stage to the other, like waves crashing. There’s never a lull, never a pause, and thanks to the wonderful direction, the staging is matched perfectly with the performances to create that pace.

But it is Kristin Vaughan’s show, and for those of you who’ve been waiting to see her slip into a role tailor made for her, this is your show. She couldn’t be more beautiful, she couldn’t exude more intelligence or charisma. I have seen her handle emotional depth, and I’ve seen her handle scripts that didn’t live up to her talent, but this show is a master class in classical timing and panache.

If you haven’t seen a show by Retro Productions, this is the perfect time. The piece is funny and, at three short acts (each about 35 minutes), it’s extremely comfortable. This is the perfect introduction to one of the smartest and most articulate production companies making theater at the Off-Off level. More than that, if you really want smart established scripts, and you’re accustomed to really high production values, then you NEED to start seeing Retro’s shows. This is where that is happening.