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Monday, July 20, 2015

You Have Only One More Weekend to Laugh at '50s Computers in The Desk Set

Posted By on Mon, Jul 20, 2015 at 12:00 PM

JAY YAMADA
  • Jay Yamada

The best reason to produce a revival of the 1950s comedy The Desk Set today may also be its biggest weakness. The script speaks directly, even presciently, to our fears about automation, job security, and artificial intelligence, from the context of people who had barely begun to actually live out these fears. It’s both highly relevant and completely anachronistic.

Produced at the Exit Theatre under Stuart Bousel’s expert directing, The Desk Set — which is best known for its movie version starring Tracy and Hepburn — is about a corporate research department facing obsolescence as the company invests in a new “electric brain” to do their the librarians’ jobs.

One can only imagine how different watching this was for people who hadn’t even imagined the Star Trek computer yet than it is for a post-Millennial public that has actually seen Greek choruses of Google engineers asking, “Why do we need librarians anymore?” When Tracy and Hepburn filmed, no actual librarians had been laid off.


click to enlarge JAY YAMADA
  • Jay Yamada

If The Desk Set were written today, it would probably be a dystopian sci-fi flick with keen digital animation. Part of what makes the actual Desk Set so much more interesting is that it’s a screwball-style comedy instead. The Exit Theatre's production (through July 25) stays true to these roots, and even enhances them, so that the cast pushes its wacky — and noisy — intensity up to 11. The fact that the ensemble is made up of characters who are '50s-era tropes makes this possible in a way that modern drama likely couldn’t get away with. There’s an exorbitant amount of old-school clucking and shrieking and girl-talk between the members of this largely female cast.

This keeps the show’s energy level ridiculously high, puts its already fast-paced dialogue on an even faster track, and is just plain funny. Desk set earns every laugh in sweat, and the audience laughs almost entirely throughout the show.

click to enlarge JAY YAMADA
  • Jay Yamada
Gravitas, however, is lost, and so to some extent are the people, with the cast constantly going big instead of taking the time to let these characters breathe. Here the show suffers from comparison to the Tracy-Hepburn version: Those stars added a rom-com element that the original script happily does without, but the arch back-and-forth between the two leading actors lent a corresponding depth to the struggle that human beings face when confronted with their digital overlords for the first time. When Hepburn’s Bunny Watson sparred with Tracy’s Richard Sumner, it was ultimately in the service of romance, but it gave her an extended chance to protest her fate on behalf of humanity — an opportunity that the Exit’s Bunny doesn’t get.

Actress Allison Page suffers most as a result, since her character is otherwise quite closely analogous to the one Katherine Hepburn played, and no one should have to be compared to Hepburn. Hers is a valiant effort, even so, and one wishes she had been given the same room for human beats as the legendary film star, instead of just making the most of all the comic beats she’s given.

But everyone does yeoman’s work, with Megan Briggs especially commanding the stage as Bunny’s bantering sidekick Peggy. The more the cast functions as an ensemble, the funnier it gets – and the more anachronistic the characters and set become, the more hilarious.

Alas, The Desk Set hasn’t been sitting on an answer to the problem of unemployment-through-automation for the last 50 years. The answer it comes up with — that a wise company would realize it needs both humans and machines to get the job right — flies in the face of everything we know actual companies are doing with actual workers and actual automation. The best case scenario for Bunny and her team, in the real world, would be to get fired but paid as independent contractors, and then eventually phased out entirely.

We didn’t know that then: we sure do now. Desk Set’s cheerful resolution is as dated as its portrayal of sexual politics.

Which brings us back to the fact that the worst thing about The Desk Set may also be the best thing: on the one hand, it’s not an insightful investigation into the struggle of automation in our time; it’s just a screwball comedy. On the other hand, it’s not an insightful investigation into the struggle of automation in our time — it’s a screwball comedy. And it does that very well.

The Desk Set, through July, at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy, 415-931-1094.



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Benjamin Wachs

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