Serling drama isn't subtle, but it retains a surprising impact
By Jerome Weeks
Theater Critic of the Dallas Morning News
Before he became known for his grim-visaged intros for The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was a promising television drama writer. Starting out much like Paddy Chayefsky (Network) and Horton Foote (Tender Mercies), he became celebrated for such scripts as Requiem for a Heavyweight—and 1954's Patterns, the young writer's first big hit.
For its second production, the fledgling Lean Theater has adapted Patterns for the stage, opening the drama Sunday night at Richland College's Arena Theater. Somewhat surprisingly, the old-fashioned, big-business-crushing-the-little-guy story still delivers some melodramatic impact, despite a clumsy staging and the fist-shaking moral fervor of its dialogue ("You can't just throw people away like garbage!).
Mr. Serling was very much a part of the '50s Cold War liberal angst. Perhaps his most lasting and unfortunate influence on TV has been the use of heavy-handed allegories in sci-fi to deal with social issues, a technique since enshrined in Star Trek.
With Patterns, Mr. Serling is still heavy-handed, clearly writing under the influence of Death of a Salesman, while the Lean folks have revived the play with one eye on Other People's Money. Patterns is very much in the great, gray continuum of American writing about business—probably because corporate practices haven't changed all that much.
New guy Fred Staples (Jerry Crow) is brought to New York from small-town Ohio to work for the Ramsey Corp., but finds that (a) the company is gobbling up firms, laying people off and selling their assets and that (b) he is being groomed by the tyrannical Mr. Ramsey to replace a longtime good-guy vice president (Thurman Moss). Throw in a little Lady Macbeth action from the new guy's wife (Yolanda Younger), and you have a dirty-dealings-in-the-boardroom melodrama that seems to link arms with 1957's The Sweet Smell of Success.
Two things work in Patterns’ favor. Although the individual components of the narrative are overly familiar, it's not certain until the very end which way Patterns will go. And the final boardroom shouting matches that settle the matter have some welcome dramatic heat.
One thing works very much against the Lean production. Because Patterns was a TV (and later movie) script, the black-box Arena Theatre must accommodate many settings for quick scenes. Chuck Sheffield's cluttered set design lays out all of the office furniture and leaves the actors to walk all the way around it, as if they were filing down long hallways. This makes for a lot of wailing: Everyone seems to be hiking in from that small town in Ohio.
Mr. Serling's moral—if only nice guys ran things, the system would work—dates Patterns to the '50s, as does much of its dialogue (the secretaries even refer to them selves as "the girls"). Director Moss has opted for a generic look the suggests both that era and our own and he's given himself and a number of very capable actors broad stroke roles that suit them.
Casting the normally nebbishly Terry Vandivort as the ruthless Mr. Ramsey, for instance, was a shrewd move, not the least because his "little despot" as he's called, tends to suggest another short tycoon currently making headlines. [Ross Perot?]
Patterns presented by the Lean Theater at Richland College's Arena Theater, 12800 Abrams Road, through Aug 1. Performance reviewed was Thursday preview Free admission. Call 504‑6680.