'The Best of Everything': The Women of 'Mad Men' Without Rose-Colored Glasses

"Some people have nothing better to do than gossip," states one character scornfully in The Best of Everything, a stage adaptation of Rona Jaffe's novel currently in performances at the Here Arts Center. While that statement is certainly -- and unfortunately -- true, without this gossip we would be left without works like Jaffe's and this gripping, understated and all-too-timely play.

The story of a pool of secretaries in a New York paperback-publishing firm, it is clear why The Best of Everything appeals to modern-day audiences. The popularity of Mad Men, as well as the recent Broadway revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying have fed the nostalgia of our culture. (A paperback copy of The Best of Everything was even featured in an episode of Mad Men.) What was not counted on, however, was the frightening relevance of The Best of Everything to present-day women, especially during an election season.

Directed by Julie Kramer and adapted for the stage by Kramer and Amy Wilson, The Best of Everything follows Caroline (a bright-eyed Sarah Wilson), who, fresh out of Radcliffe, finds herself at sea after her fiancé breaks off their engagement. After being hired as a secretary at Shalimar Publishing, she quickly rises in the ranks at her office where there is only one female editor: the famed and feared Miss Farrow. Played in a remarkably understated performance by Amy Wilson, Miss Farrow is 36 years old and unmarried; thus, she is considered an old maid by her co-workers and always wears a hat indoors to differentiate herself from the female secretaries and readers. Miss Farrow is quite harsh on Caroline at first but, as Caroline steadily earns her respect, she eventually helps to advance her career.

Joining Caroline at the office are the soon-to-be married Mary Agnes (a prim and funny Molly Lloyd), the Southern single gal April (a delightful Alicia Sable) and the aspiring actress Gregg (a sultry Hayley Treider). The women find plenty to talk about, including dating, marriage and even (in hushed tones) sex. (After all, this play takes place in a time when sex is still referred to as "going all the way.") One of the most interesting aspects of their conversations is their attitude regarding ambition vs. marriage; at the time, the two apparently had to oppose each other and could not co-exist. In this company, a woman was required to quit her job by the time she was three months pregnant; and, when asked by Miss Farrow if she is only working until she is married, Caroline responds by saying she does not plan on being married anytime soon. Miss Farrow's response is, "Oh, so you're one of the ambitious ones." Numerous times throughout the play, characters remark on Caroline's ambition, but whether they are commenting in admiration or admonition varies. Caroline's ambition does result in great achievements, but many people -- of both genders -- do not take them, or her, seriously.

The Best of Everything has some well-timed, light-hearted moments, and there were several times I found myself embarrassed by how loudly I laughed in the intimate audience space, but much of the play offers a sobering lesson in history and current events. This play is performed in a straightforward manner, without any winks or nudges, and the direct, clear presentation of the play makes no apologies for its downright disturbing message about the role women play in society and how they are viewed by men. After rejecting the sexual advances of one of her superiors, Caroline is called a "bitch" by him, and when she rejects the romantic proposition of a suitor, he responds by degrading her career and telling her nothing she does will make any difference in the world. In a very clever casting decision, four different male roles are played by the same actor (the talented and versatile Tom O'Keefe), depicting how interchangable the men in this story are; and at the office holiday party, the women dance with cardboard cutouts of men. Their smiles are so bright, they almost hide the fact that these men are so stiff and hollow they are literally cardboard cutouts.

A woman having a position of authority in the workplace is still a topic of discussion, with many 21st century people stating a woman has to "be a bitch" to get advance her career. While Miss Farrow does appear brusque and perhaps mean-spirited at times, listening to people gossip about her and speculate if her career achievements could be credited to an affair with the head of the company, I could almost understand why she had so many defenses up. One of the secretaries speculates on her career, saying, "I wonder if you could have Miss Farrow's life without being mean like Miss Farrow." That question is undeniably still relevant in today's workplace.

While straightforward and direct, the tone of The Best of Everything is also respectful. One character finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and, when discussing her options, actually says the word "abortion." Given public television's reticence in using the word in lieu of "take care of it" or "procedure," I was surprised -- and pleased -- that a show set in the 1950s would use it so bluntly.

What resonated the most strongly during The Best of Everything, was the question of fulfillment. The idea that a woman belongs in the home, compared to the idea of a woman finding fulfillment in her career, and the judgment that society places upon both groups of women, is poignantly depicted in this play, especially when Mary Agnes visits her friends at work after marrying and having a baby. The affection the women feel for each other is visible, but so is the disconnect they now feel due to the different lives that they lead.

Staged in Lauren Helpern's multi-platform set, with Graham Kindred's lighting and Daniel Urlie's period-perfect costumes, The Best of Everything evokes the era without nostalgia, but rather in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. And, while independence in women is not admired in The Best of Everything, independence in theater is, and this witty, creative and thought-provoking production offers the best that indeed.