Fort Worth — Back in the late 1940s and onward, a scrappy, mostly self-educated New York writer named Helene Hanff wasn’t having much luck getting her plays produced, but found work—and just enough money to get by in Manhattan—writing scripts for early TV shows like Playhouse 90, The Adventures of Ellery Queen and the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Television didn’t make her famous—but though she didn’t know it then, the story that would was right at her fingertips all the time.
Published in 1970, Hanff’s book 84, Charing Cross Road told the true story—almost entirely through letters written from 1949 to 1969—of the personal relationship that grew between Hanff and the staff of a London book shop, Marks & Co., which sold gently used copies of the classics of English literature.
English books came cheap in postwar Britain—food rationing was still in force, the economy in a shambles—and Hanff found she could get much better copies of old works by Samuel “Peeps” (it’s actually spelled “Pepys”) and John Donne by ordering from London. Her funny, conversational letters were like nothing the book shop had ever received; and before they knew it, Hanff was calling them by first names and finding a way to send food parcels for Christmas.
But 84 Charing Cross Road—given an appealing, simple presentation by DVA Productions, Inc. at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center—isn’t a play just for book lovers. No, this adaptation by James Roose-Evans (there was also a 1987 movie version with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins) is more about something that hasn’t changed all that much even in the age of Facebook and Twitter: the unexpected pleasures of a “virtual” friendship.
Most of the letters passed between Hanff, played by DVA founder Sheran Keyton, and the expert book buyer in the shop, Frank Doel; he's played by local actor Michael Craig Rains, who once "worked for the BBC,” says a note in the program. The play, then, depends on audiences warming up to the two main characters. In a rare non-singing role, Keyton sports a reasonably convincing New Yawk accent and paints a funny, sympathetic portrait of Hanff, a sloppy, chain-smoking workaday writer with a passion for Great Books and a Jewish mother’s penchant for trying to arrange everyone else’s lives. Rains is amusing, touching and accent-perfect as the slightly stuffy Doel, whose formality isn’t really that hard to break through. They’re definitely an odd couple, but as they connect with each other, we’re drawn closer, too.
There’s a nice, natural “listening” relationship between the actors, though their characters are thousands of miles apart. Set designer David Ruffin throws up an invisible wall between the London shop (invitingly full of old wood and books) on one side of the stage and Hanff’s cramped NYC apartment on the other. And there’s some clever staging from director Brad Lowrance: as a letter is being written (and spoken aloud) on one side, it’s being “read” on the other, and the audience has fun watching the reactions. The closest Hanff and Doel come to one another is in standing back-to-back for one moment, the invisible space of an ocean between them, as they “speak” their letters to one another.
Six other actors play the busy staff of Marks & Co. These are small roles, but the constant hum of comings and goings make it feel like a real book shop, and keep the play from becoming claustrophobic. Faye Austin is sweet as Cecily Farr, a young staffer who loved Hanff’s letters so much she sent letters on her own—even though she knew Doel considered Hanff his own “private” customer. Laura L. Jones, Tyrone King, Rick Spivey, R.J. Washington and Jennie Lynn Godfrey fill out the roster: Spivey’s changing wardrobe and Washington’s great pair of ‘60s pants are a touch of the world outside, and Jones ably doubles as an actress friend of Hanff’s working in London, who gives her an eyewitness report of what the shop is like.
Did Hanff ever meet her London friends? If you don’t know that already, you’ll just have to wait and see.