NEW YORK (AP) — J.B. Priestley's 1935 play, "Cornelius," directed by Sam Yates, is being presented by Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. It's a subtle, old-fashioned drama with comedic undertones, revealing repressed longings among the uneasy staff of a small British aluminum import firm during a terrible economy.
Yates renders the manners and mores of the period with faithful attention to details, keeping his proficient cast of 16 in orderly motion as events transpire in a large, one-room office. The play was considered edgy when it premiered, and remains relevant nearly eight decades later.
With the economy tanked due to the Depression, unemployment is sky-high. Hungry people intrude into the office at times, desperately trying to sell their pitiful wares. The wolf is at the door in the form of menacing bankers, yet the senior partner has been oddly out of touch for more than a month.
Juggling details and dodging creditors while optimistically awaiting the return of his partner is Jim Cornelius (a superb performance Alan Cox). His mood is buoyed by the temporary presence of a lovely young typist, Judy, played by Emily Barber with an alluring yet elusive air.
Cox is briskly authoritative, energetic and whimsical as pipe-smoking Cornelius. He masterfully conveys Cornelius' inner dreamer and armchair traveler as he navigates the perilous shoals of small-business survival skills.
Cornelius' interest in confident, pretty Judy outrages his longtime assistant, plain Miss Porrin, (a delightfully prissy Pandora Colin), who's obviously in love with the boss. The staff also includes longtime clerk Mr. Biddle (a solid portrayal by Col Farrell), a snarky young office boy (David Ellis), and Beverly Klein as a comical Cockney cleaner.
Priestley's dialogue is notably colorful. Business competition is described as "a game of snakes and ladders — without the ladders" and a harsh banker is said to have "a face like a rat trap." When things go terribly wrong, Cornelius turns moody, and speaking about himself at midlife, ruefully tells Judy, "It's a good record but the gramophone's old and rusty."
David Woodhead's set, tidily crammed with office supplies and multiple desks, is oddly familiar to any modern cubicle worker. The musty-fusty period design ably creates the claustrophobic mood of a crowded space in which five or more people must work quietly.
The overall parallel to the present sustained unemployment is unmistakable. Priestly presents some cogent and still-pertinent observations about the endurance of small businesses — and dreamers — in a mercenary world.